Maryland school officials said yesterday that nearly nine out of 10 students in the current senior class have passed the High School Assessments and predicted that no student will fail to graduate because of the state's requirements. "There is no reason why any student will be denied a diploma because of the HSAs," said Leslie Wilson, who heads the state's testing program. Wilson said there are many programs in place to help students meet academic standards that have been set as graduation requirements for the first time next spring.
The claim was immediately challenged by members of the state school board, one of whom said Wilson was painting "too rosy a picture."
"I think there will be a substantial number of students who won't graduate," said school board member Blair Ewing. "I think that is a very real issue. I think that is a statement we ought not to make."
The end-of-course exams in biology, algebra, American government and English II may become a political issue as Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick tries to push through the standards that she has worked to put in place for many years. Grasmick believes the tests are needed to set minimum standards for earning a diploma. She frequently points out that students won't be successful in college or the workplace without mastering basic algebra and English.
But critics contend that thousands of students - most of whom are African-American, Latino, learning English as a second language or in special education - are likely to be denied diplomas. They say not all students have been offered an education that would allow them to succeed on the tests.
The board was told yesterday that 88 percent of seniors have passed or met alternative requirements, but it isn't expected to get a full picture of where seniors stand until a meeting the last week of October. That gives the board only a short time to decide whether to make the Class of 2009 comply.
Wilson declined to give specific pass rates or numbers of students who have fallen short, saying that the 24 school systems have not collected all their data. The state knows whether an individual has passed but not whether that student is on track to graduate. About 4,000 students statewide, or 6.5 percent of the senior class, will be held back not by the exams but because they have not accumulated enough credits. In addition, about 2,000 are likely to drop out.
There are several ways to meet the requirements without passing all the tests. Students may graduate if their passing score on the four tests added together is 1,602 or if they complete projects that cover the material they failed on one or more of the tests.
The first group of students who did makeup projects this summer in several school districts had a pass rate of 70 percent. The board was told some students might have to complete as many as 28 projects.
The state also has a simplified test for some students in special education, and many of those students have yet to take the simpler test.
A number of school board members, particularly those who were appointed more recently by Gov. Martin O'Malley, seemed skeptical about the exams and asked for data to be presented in a variety of ways next month. One member said he wanted numbers on the dropout rates and those who are still in 10th or 11th grade because they continue to fail classes.
Board member Kate Walsh asked how much the tests have cost and was told about $20 million. She then questioned whether the tests had raised standards if every student would be able to pass them.
"We all wanted these assessments because we wanted the diploma to mean something," Walsh said. But because students had trouble passing the tests, the state has a very low threshold for how many questions a student has to get right, she said. "We have spent all this money to develop a test that everyone can pass?" she asked. "Where are we today that we weren't 15 years ago?"
Grasmick said the assessments have raised standards of teaching in schools and have ensured that high schools don't forget the students who aren't doing well academically.
"Every student matters now," Grasmick said.
Grasmick and her staff argued that low-performing students or those with special needs are getting more personal attention to help them succeed because of the tests.