`It is a pressure off my shoulders,' says one student in Lansdowne High's Class of 2009 of new way to graduate

Relief in projects decision

November 02, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Reporter

Rarely do decisions made by state education officials in a stuffy seventh-floor boardroom in downtown Baltimore resound less than 24 hours later at a high school five miles away.

But yesterday at Lansdowne Senior High School, Jacob Schmidt began to feel some relief after a teacher told him that the Maryland State Board of Education had decided that he and anyone else in the Class of 2009 who failed the High School Assessments twice would be allowed instead to complete projects in the subjects they had failed.

"I have something else I can do to graduate," Schmidt said. "It is a pressure off my shoulders."

The lanky boy with dark curly hair wants to be the first in his immediate family to graduate from high school. But he is going to have to battle to accomplish that because he hasn't passed all four of the tests, and he has only 19 months to go before graduation.

He is determined not to drop out as his siblings did.

Students in the Class of 2009 will be the first in the state to have to pass four end-of-course exams in algebra, American government, English and biology or complete some projects to get a diploma.

The project won't be easy, said Lansdowne Principal Lynda M. Whitlock. Despite the skepticism that the projects will be something done in an hour on poster board, the school board is demanding that they be substantial and time-consuming.

"This is for the serious, hard-working student who didn't pass the test," she said.

She was one of 15 high school principals in Maryland whom the school board consulted to help design the projects. Each of the projects, called modules, likely will take four to six weeks to complete and will give the student 20 to 35 points to add to a failing score. A student who misses the passing score by 50 points would have to do two projects to pass.

Projects will be graded by a local review board that will include a representative from the state.

Schmidt and other students said they weren't afraid of working hard on the projects, but taking exams is frightening and difficult.

"A lot of students get a little scared when they get a big test," said Lindsay Thomas, a Lansdowne junior. "They freeze up."

Pressure to pass the test is so great, they said, that some students are overwhelmed.

"I feel I can learn best when I do a project outside of school," said Lauren Brooks, another junior.

She said she sometimes has trouble learning in large classes where the teachers don't have time to answer a lot of her questions. She failed the algebra test but is enjoying her algebra review class because she is in a smaller class and getting more attention.

If she doesn't pass the test next time, she said she will be happy to do the project.

The state school board also said it would allow students to have a diploma if the scores of the exams in the four subjects total 1,602. That change alone will help her students, Whitlock said, particularly those who are strong in one subject and weaker in another.

About half of the 258 students in the Class of 2009 at Lansdowne have not passed one or more of the tests. By yesterday morning, Whitlock was holding a thick printed list of every junior who had failed the test and how many points they needed to make up.

She had been through the dog-eared collection of paper, held together with a clip, and checked off each student whose score met the 1,602 mark. About 10 percent more would now pass, she said.

Whitlock said she believes she can get most of the rest of the class members to pass when they retake the test, probably in May, after a lot of after-school help and online tutoring. Her best guess is that she will have 50 students eligible to do one or more projects.

Principals will be eager to have students pass the tests, she said, because overseeing projects will consume a lot of staff time, and she doubts that extra people will be sent to her school to help.

"It is our advantage and the students' to pass the test," she said.

Whitlock said she has one hard-working student in special education who has passed three of the four tests. The girl won't be able to pass the algebra exam, the principal said, but she can graduate with a project.

Lansdowne students said they are upset that they have to pass the tests and are particularly annoyed that the class ahead of them doesn't have the requirement. They said they believe the tests would increase the dropout rate, but they acknowledged that teachers have given them more classwork in an effort to prepare them for the exams.

Whitlock said the tests have raised expectations in county high schools since they were put in place about five years ago.

"It is more clear exactly what the expectations are," she said. "Teachers are organizing their lessons in a much more rigorous way. ... I think instruction is improving."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

SAMPLE BIOLOGY PROJECT

Design, conduct and evaluate an investigation to determine an effect of light intensity on the rate of photosynthesis. The investigation should be a controlled experiment and include research to support conclusions.

Example: Students on a biology field trip observe that there is less submerged aquatic vegetation in a bay compared with their last visit. They also observe that the water appears cloudier. Students pose the question, "Is there are relationship between the cloudiness of the bay water and the reduced number of plants?"

The student would then develop an hypothesis, design a procedure to test it, do the experiment, analyze the data, write a report that includes a conclusion and a bibliography with five sources.

Source: The Maryland State Department of Education distributed this example of the type of project that students could do if they failed a high school assessment.

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