Tens of thousands of students across Maryland took the all-important High School Assessments this week, but missing among the test takers were some of those less likely to pass.
After schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick issued a "clarification" of state regulations last March, at least one major school system in Maryland decided to let students who are failing a course opt out of that test until they can pass the course.
The move, some education advocates say, could make pass rates on the test look better than they actually are at a time when there is public pressure to get rid of the high school assessments as a graduation requirement beginning in 2009. Last year, 66 percent of students statewide passed the Algebra I test, and fewer in urban districts such as Baltimore City and Prince George's County, raising fears that many might not be able to graduate.
"If they are looking at the results of the test, and all children are not taking it ... then they risk misleading themselves and the public in general," said Robert Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which focuses on education, health and other issues in the Baltimore region.
Having some school systems allow students to delay taking the test might also create inconsistencies within the state, said Matthew Joseph, director of Advocates for Children and Youth.
"The new policy seeks to provide clarity but actually adds to the confusion and creates the serious probability of major inconsistencies across the state, within school districts, within schools and within individual classrooms," Joseph said in an e-mail.
State officials defend the clarification, saying it was prompted by questions from school systems that wanted to know if they had flexibility in cases where they did not believe it was in the best interest of a particular student to take the test when the student was failing.
The question was taken to an assistant attorney general, who said the regulation could be interpreted to mean that students didn't have to take the test until after they had completed the course.
"We don't expect that a lot of students aren't going to be taking the test because of this," said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the State Department of Education.
Students take the High School Assessments in Algebra I, American government, English II and biology at the end of the course. Before the clarification, which was sent in a memo to local superintendents March 16, school systems required all students to take the test at the end of the course, even if they had failing grades in the class.
Students can retake the HSAs as many times as they want until they pass it, but today's high school sophomores have been told they must pass all four tests or have a combined minimum score to get a diploma. The test is offered several times every year.
Based on test results in the past few years, thousands of students across the state might be denied a diploma beginning in 2009. That worry has created a groundswell of public opposition to making the tests so high-stakes.
Grasmick and the state board believe, however, that linking the diploma to the tests helps to raise academic standards and makes high school more rigorous, particularly in the lowest-performing schools. Maryland is joining 21 states that make the awarding of a high school diploma contingent on the passage of a set of tests.
In California, the number of high school graduates dropped by as much as 50,000 last year, the same year the state linked getting a diploma to a high school exit exam, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Some of the highest test failure rates are in Baltimore City, but school officials there, after an internal review, decided to continue giving the exams to every student enrolled in a course. "We were worried about the perception if we were to tell huge numbers of students not to take the test," said Baltimore's chief academic officer, Linda Chinnia.
About 1,800 students in Baltimore City are failing a course they need to pass the test and have been absent more than a month. Those students, Chinnia said, would have been advised not to take the test.
But she said the school system worried what it would do to a student's motivation if he or she were advised not to take the exam. In addition, she said, "For many of our students, multiple opportunities on the test does help them do better." Even if a student fails the test, she said, the results provide information about what material the students have not mastered.
Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties decided to continue giving all students the test.
"I think every student should take the test. It shows how much you have learned over the year," said Brian Frazee, the student member of the Maryland State Board of Education and a senior from Waldorf.
By taking the test, Frazee said, students would learn what areas they are weak in.