Passing senior exams a challenging project

About 10,000 students have not passed tests

May 28, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN REPORTER

Principals and teachers across the state are preparing for a yearlong push so thousands of students - some of whom have failed mandatory state graduation tests multiple times - will reach the stage in a cap and gown by June 2009.

For the first time next spring, high school seniors will have to pass four end-of-course tests in biology, algebra, English II and American government to earn a diploma.

Students who have all required graduation credits yet have failed a subject test twice will have the option of doing a project instead, but educators say the state is demanding such complex, time-consuming projects that students and schools may find completing them more difficult than passing the exams.

"I think it is a noble effort to help some kids who might not graduate, but I think it might be difficult to manage," said Dave Volrath, executive director for secondary education in Harford County.

There is no solid estimate of how many members of the Class of 2009 are in danger of not graduating, but state education officials say that about 88 percent of students in the class statewide have passed all four of the Maryland High School Assessments. That still leaves about 10,000 students in the class who haven't passed one or more of the tests, according to Maryland Deputy State Superintendent Ronald Peiffer.

Still, officials maintain their belief that there should be no drop in the graduation rate as a result of the assessments, a position that has been questioned by some education advocates.

Last fall, the state board voted after a contentious debate to permit students to do a project as an alternative if they failed the tests. Some members supported delaying the requirement.

Many students retook tests last week, and it will be months before those results will be available, but thousands are expected to be scrambling by early fall to retake the tests in October and January, or do a project.

Some school systems are not waiting and have chosen to begin offering students the option of doing it during summer school.

For example, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City schools will offer the project on a limited basis, while Prince George's County will allow students to do it at five of its summer school sites in all four subjects.

In other school districts, the projects won't start until the fall, but students will be able to retake tests during the summer.

R. Daniel Cunningham, the state's director of instructional assessment, has traveled all over the state consulting with local school officials about the project, and he said the reaction has been generally positive, although "clearly, there is the reaction that the test route is less labor intensive."

School administrators from Garrett, Baltimore and Harford counties and the city said their emphasis is on giving students a lot of extra help to get them to pass the tests rather than rely on the project option.

At Lansdowne High School in Baltimore County, Principal Lynda Whitlock said many students took seven weeks of review classes on Saturday mornings before this month's exams. "The kids focused so intensely. They really cared, and they really put 100 percent into it," she said.

Whitlock said until those scores come in, she won't know how many of her students will have to do the project, called the bridge plan.

But she said most of them will have to do it with minimal supervision because there is no extra staff to oversee it.

"We are hoping they will do most of it on their own time," she said.

Volrath in Harford County said that when the project is done well, it will require a lot of work and one-on-one supervision by a teacher. It would be unlikely, he said, that a school could combine all students who need to do projects into one class because each student would be doing a different project.

It would be more likely that each student will need a faculty adviser.

For example, a sample biology project available to teachers and students on the state's Web site requires a student to do a science experiment. The directions say, "Design, conduct and evaluate an investigation to determine an effect of light on the rate of photosynthesis. The investigation should be controlled and include a hypothesis, procedure, data, research and a conclusion."

Students must turn in their data to their teachers to prove that they have completed the work. Students are required to demonstrate they have an understanding of the structure and function of molecules. Each project is graded by a group of teachers outside of their school.

Small school systems have as many concerns as big ones. Garrett County's coordinator of research and testing, Jim Morris, said he is hoping that students pass the test.

"The bridge plan is a lot of work," said Morris.

The graduation requirement could still get another review this fall after three new members of the state board of education, who have been appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, take office.

"I think the members of the General Assembly are very concerned about the impact of the high school assessments on their local high schools and students. In the past session, they decided to defer to the state board to see what solutions they would find," said Bebe Verdery, education director at the Maryland ACLU.

With a majority of O'Malley appointees on the board in July, the board could decide to delay the graduation requirement or to get rid of it entirely, options that were considered and failed last fall.

Whitlock said she understands the concern about students failing to get a diploma because of one test, but she doesn't believe that it is fair to suddenly change the rules for the Class of 2009, some of whom have studied hard and taken the tests many times.

"You can't keep changing your mind," she said. "You either have to have requirements and stand by them or not. The students have put in a tremendous amount of effort."

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