Worry grows on Md. testing

Groups, lawmakers voice concerns on '09 diploma requirement

March 12, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

... With just two years to go until new state tests could deny diplomas to thousands of students, grass-roots opposition to Maryland's High School Assessments is growing.

Members of the Class of 2009 have been warned for several years that they will not graduate unless they pass the state exams in algebra, English, American government and biology. But a blue-ribbon panel in Prince George's County is questioning whether four tests should decide a student's future - and whether the resources are there to ensure that students have qualified teachers and time to catch up if they fail.

Montgomery County school officials have sent a white paper to the state school board outlining their concerns about the testing.

And the Maryland Coalition for Excellent Schools, a group that includes education advocates, teachers unions, local school boards and the American Civil Liberties Union, is urging the legislature to take a hard look at the issue. Several bills have been introduced in the General Assembly that would stop or at least delay the testing requirement.

Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the state school board say they are committed to the testing. But the first suggestion that they might back off from the plan to require the tests as a condition of graduation by 2009 came this month. Board members said they probably would delay the requirement for special education students and those with limited proficiency in English.

The state began developing the tests more than a decade ago as a way to increase standards in high school, and the exams have become a fact of life for students. Students are taking the algebra test as early as seventh grade. Most Maryland 10th-graders believe that they have no choice but to pass all four tests if they hope to graduate.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act does not require high school examinations linked to graduation. Maryland, along with 25 other states, has made them a requirement.

Potential crisis

Some administrators, teachers and parents see a potential disaster in 2009 when the first students will be told that they cannot graduate as a result of the tests.

"We felt there was an economic crisis coming to the county," said County Councilman Samuel H. Dean, who chaired the Prince George's panel.

Students who do not get a diploma won't be as prepared for jobs, Dean said, and the county's economy will suffer.

"I think there are serious enough questions to look at whether we should be using a single instrument to decide" whether a student graduates, he said.

Many of the groups raising questions are not opposed to linking graduation to passage of tests, but they contend that not all students have been given an equal chance to pass them. And they worry that some students could be denied a diploma for reasons that might have little to do with effort.

"Not every child at this moment has a highly qualified teacher or the resources they need," said Clara Floyd, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "I think the community and the parents are concerned that certain groups of students are at greater risk of failing."

Jim May of Calvert County learned two years ago that his child would have to pass the High School Assessments. That meant that his son, who teachers felt was at risk of failing the algebra test because of mild learning disabilities, was given a double period of math that he hated.

His son passed the test, but still worries that he might not get a diploma. May talked to teachers, administrators and his local school board and found little support for the exam.

"If it is so good, why isn't it universally accepted?" he asked. He has lobbied his state legislators, testified in Annapolis and called state school board members.

Tool or barrier?

School leaders in Montgomery County sent a strongly worded report to the State Department of Education last fall in which they outlined concerns about the High School Assessments. The white paper, prepared by county Superintendent Jerry Weast, questioned the instructional value of the tests and suggested major changes.

"With careful, considered modifications, the HSA could truly operate as intended - a measurement tool for school improvement - rather than simply a barrier to students' graduation," the report said.

Critics also note that larger numbers of blacks and Hispanics are failing the tests.

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and former history teacher, has introduced a bill that would set up a task force that would meet for the next year and make recommendations to the Assembly.

While the bill doesn't sound controversial, it is. The state school board sees it as another attempt by lawmakers to usurp its authority to make policy.

"Do I want to take it out of the hands of the state board? No, but there are enough questions that the legislature wants its voice added to the deliberations," Pinsky said.

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