Academic alarm

September 10, 2007

An analysis of Maryland's High School Assessments shows that too many African-American students in suburban schools are in serious danger of not graduating because they have not passed the required tests.

Dunbar Brooks, president of the state board of education, rightly points to the analysis, by The Sun's Gina Davis and Liz Bowie, as a "wake-up call" to black parents and students in Maryland that mere enrollment in a suburban school does not guarantee academic success.

The results should also serve as a stark reminder to educators around the state that there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that all students have a fair chance to fulfill graduation mandates.

Starting with the class of 2009, Maryland is requiring seniors to have passed four tests - algebra, government, English and biology - before they can receive diplomas. While state education officials view the required tests as minimum, not maximum, standards, they are showing realistic signs of concern.

Just two weeks ago, state schools superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed that students who repeatedly failed the test be allowed to submit an in-depth project as an alternative. The proposal, which is still being fleshed out, must be approved by the state board of education.

Based on the latest assessment results, the Sun analysis shows that among African-American students in the Class of '09 who attend Baltimore County high schools that are predominantly black - such as Randallstown and Woodlawn - passing rates were below 50 percent. Schools in lower-income areas of Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County also had relatively low passing rates compared with schools in more-affluent and less-diverse areas.

There are surely many contributing factors to the poor performance of many suburban schools, including parents' education and family income, which can act together or separately to hinder student performance. Some studies have found that even in suburban African-American households, there may be fewer books and less emphasis on helping children develop critical reading skills.

Whatever the causes, the dismal results call for urgent, comprehensive action. A long-term solution is even greater emphasis on early education.

In the meantime, school officials must ensure that at-risk African-American students get additional instruction time, especially during after-school and summer sessions.

Parents and communities must also rededicate themselves to helping students realize their educational potential and to not letting them succumb to failure.

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