Board to debate required exams

Vote expected on continuing tests

October 30, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

The state school board is expected to begin two days of a marathon debate this morning over whether to make the High School Assessments a graduation requirement.

For 180,000 high school students in Maryland, the board's decision will affect the rest of their school careers: what courses they take, what material they are taught and most importantly, whether they receive a diploma.

"Many members, I think, firmly believe this is the most important decision they will make while they are on the Board of Education," said Dunbar Brooks, board president.

The decision is likely to be watched closely not only by educators and parents around the state, but also by several other states that are considering similar requirements.

Under current state policy, students starting with the Class of 2009 must pass state tests in English, algebra, biology and American government in order to graduate. The board is scheduled to vote tomorrow on whether to keep that requirement.

Part of the underlying issue for some board members, including Brooks, is the gap in minority achievement in the state. African-American students, even those in good suburban high schools, are passing the tests at much lower rates than white and Asian students. "What are we going to do about closing the achievement gap? That is in the back of people's minds," Brooks said.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is recommending the board keep the requirement but give students who fail the tests several times the option of doing a senior project instead. The school board usually follows Grasmick's recommendations, but whether they accept this one is open to question, Brooks said.

Some members want to consider other options and have said they have questions about what provisions will be made to help special-education students, as well as those for whom English is a second language.

The board has taken the unusual step of clearing its plate of all other business for the entire day today and half a day tomorrow. Brooks said he might delay a final vote if the school board members believe they need to discuss the issue further. He said he could call another special meeting in November for the vote.

"I am hoping that, at the end, we will have answered their questions and that we will have a level of comfort with the high school assessments," Grasmick said. "Obviously I can't predict what will happen."

For Grasmick, the vote is an important moment in a journey she said she began 16 years ago in attempting to bring greater accountability to schools in Maryland. She has been a strong proponent of requiring students to pass tests for graduation, a move she believes would increase the rigor of high school courses and provide businesses with a better-prepared work force.

But those on the other side of the debate believe that students, particularly those who might not have gotten an adequate education, should not be held accountable with a series of high-stakes tests that would decide their futures.

"Some children receive a substandard education, particularly African-American children," said Lillian Epps, the mother of a Randallstown student. "I have heard so many students say they will drop out if they have to keep taking the test again and again. It is humiliating."

David S. Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, said several Southern states are beginning to question whether such tests are the best way to go.

About half of the states have some graduation tests in place or, like Maryland, have made moves to adopt them. Spence said the emphasis is shifting away from exit exams and toward ensuring that more students graduate and are prepared for college.

Hundreds of people have written to the board; both support and opposition have been expressed.

Nearly all of the state's local school superintendents have said they support the proposal, as does the Maryland Business Roundtable and secondary school principals.

But on the other side is a large group of parents, advocates and local school board members who have questions about details of the test.

"The state board must ensure that students have qualified teachers and receive extra help - tutoring, smaller classes, summer school - to give them a fair chance to pass," said Bebe Verdery, education director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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