A special exit strategy

October 23, 2007

Maryland's High School Assessment tests, which are required for graduation starting with the Class of 2009, are coming under increased scrutiny as the Maryland State Board of Education prepares to reassess the tests in meetings scheduled for next week. Board members will review a proposal by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to allow students who have repeatedly failed the tests to complete a senior project instead.

While testing students to determine how much they have mastered important subjects is worthwhile, all students must be given adequate preparation to pass the tests and -- particularly for special-education students -- sufficient options to meet graduation requirements.

As the deadline draws closer for this year's high school juniors to pass tests in algebra, government, biology and English, there is increasing concern that many of them are going to be left behind. The latest assessment results showed that a majority of 11th-graders are passing the tests -- from 62 percent in biology to 77 percent in algebra -- but so far the passing rates for special-education students range from only about 33 percent in English to 50 percent in government.

State education officials are concerned, but not yet overly alarmed. They anticipate better pass rates over the next 18 months as many special-education students have delayed taking the tests in order to take more preparatory courses. Parents and other special-education advocates are also conflicted, and understandably so.

The vast majority of special-education students -- who comprise about 12.5 percent of students statewide -- are on track to graduate with the same diploma as other students, instead of a special certificate. But there is still concern about some special-education students who can't perform to the best of their ability because they don't have quality teachers or they are not able to take and pass high-stakes standardized tests.

Disabled students who qualify for special accommodations within the classroom, such as extra time or someone to read to them, are also entitled to those same accommodations when taking tests. State education officials are also experimenting with alternative assessments that include a performance-based evaluation or different achievement standards for disabled students.

More flexibility is also rightly at the heart of Ms. Grasmick's proposal to allow seniors who have failed the tests twice to complete a rigorous project instead. All students should be given every chance to show that they have mastered their subjects and that they deserve a diploma.

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