State alters exam policy

Divided board OKs alternatives to passing all 4 tests

November 01, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Reporter

Maryland's State Board of Education voted yesterday to continue to require that students pass the High School Assessments before graduation, but it made two changes that could help thousands who struggle with the test.

The board, deeply divided over what is best for poor and minority children, decided not to delay the tests for a year or to waive the requirement for special-education students or those for whom English is a second language. The 8-4 vote came after months of debate, with all of Gov. Martin O'Malley's new appointees to the board voting against having the tests take effect for the Class of 2009.

High school students who have failed one or more of the tests will have two new opportunities to get their diplomas without passing all four of the tests.

One option will be to complete a project designed by the state Department of Education that will earn students points that can be used to make up the difference in their failing grades on the tests.

An alternative will be to achieve a combined score of 1,602 on the four tests. Passing scores now range from 394 in government to 412 in algebra. So a student's strength in one academic area could balance out a weakness in another when added together.

State officials estimate that about 2,000 to 3,000 students will do the alternative projects. Another 2 percent to 3 percent of failing students - usually those who barely missed passing - will be able to get a diploma because of the combined score.

The assessments are seen as a centerpiece of state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's efforts to make academic programs more rigorous.

Board members on both sides of the debate said that the test is a minimum standard and it would not ensure that students are ready for college or a job when they graduate. Board President Dunbar Brooks said it was a first step. "They begin to start us on a path where we need to be," Brooks said.

The exams are still too hard for thousands of students who have failed, and one board member predicted the state's dropout rate would increase when the tests take effect in 2009. Pass rates on the tests - given at the end of courses in basic algebra, 10th-grade English, American government and biology - vary from a high of 95 percent at the state's magnet high schools to 20 percent at the lowest-performing schools.

This week, state education officials released a detailed description of what students would be required to do under the project option. A local review panel would be set up in each district to judge the projects and the review panel would include a representative from the state education department to ensure a consistent level of quality.

The split on the board came down to philosophical differences about whether the lowest-performing students - who are disproportionately African-American, Hispanic and poor - would be harmed by the tests.

Rosa Garcia, a new member from Montgomery County, described her father as a Mexican immigrant with a third-grade education who had worked long hours his entire life. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school and college. She said she would never be where she is today "without access to high-quality education."

But she expressed concerns about whether the state would be treating minority students equally if it did not take more time to ensure every student had access to good teaching.

"I don't think we have done our due diligence in terms of every child having access to a high-quality education," Garcia said.

Board member Blair Ewing agreed, saying he was not opposed to the tests as graduation requirements, only to the timing and level of help for struggling students.

But Brooks, who is African- American, argued that dropping the tests would harm minority children.

"For the past 50 years, no one has had to pay for the abysmal academic achievement of African-American and poor children," he said. "No one has had to pay the consequences, and nothing has changed."

He said it was up to the state board to institute standards because local school boards had failed to provide an adequate education for all students.

The higher failure rates on the tests among blacks in the suburbs have focused attention on the gap in achievement between African-Americans and white students.

"If we throw this out, we will send the message that the state board doesn't care," he said.

Yesterday's decision was made in the context of a struggle over whether Grasmick will remain superintendent, a position she has held for more than a decade.

The governor has said he wants the board to replace her in July when her contract expires, but he does not control the board.

David F. Tufaro, a Republican appointed by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said he had been informed that O'Malley had met with three board members he recently appointed. All three, he said, agreed that the tests should be delayed.

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