Delay in graduation test requirement is sought

State school board member questions students' preparation

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October 24, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Clarification: An article in yesterday's editions about the Maryland High School Assessments might have left the incorrect impression about when results of last spring's tests will be released. The results will be released to members of the state school board Tuesday morning, before board members might take a vote on whether to delay requiring that students pass the exams to earn high school diplomas, according to a state schools spokesman. The results of the tests will be released to the broader public later Tuesday.

Several members of the Maryland State Board of Education are expected to seek a delay in the requirement to pass the High School Assessments for graduation, a move that would derail a decade-long push by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to strengthen standards for getting a diploma.

Board member Blair Ewing said yesterday that he will propose a delay at the monthly board meeting next week because he doesn't believe that all students have been exposed to teaching that would adequately prepare them to pass the tests. He also is concerned that only recently have simplified tests been devised for special education students.

The tests are a graduation requirement for the first time for this year's high school seniors.

Ewing said his decision has been "influenced by a great many letters, e-mails and phone calls by educators and parents who tell us the preparation for the HSA, particularly for special education and English language learners and disadvantaged students, has not been adequate. ... It seems we have so much dismay that we ought to take our time and get it right."

Ewing, who has the backing of the state's largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County, said he believes at least four board members will vote for delay.

He is unsure whether he will be able to come up with votes from as many as six. It would take that many to pass his proposal, given that one member of the 12-member board is expected to be absent.

An emotional debate about the requirement continues around the state, even as thousands of seniors who haven't passed the tests in English, algebra, American government and biology are studying to retake them or do makeup work. Those who have failed tests are allowed to complete projects instead.

Grasmick and other proponents of the assessments say that thousands of students graduate each year without a basic education. Setting at least minimum standards, they argue, will mean a better education for African-American, special education and Latino students. Opponents say some students will be denied a diploma because they were not taught by qualified teachers, were struggling to learn English as a second language or were so discouraged by the obstacles that they gave up.

Ewing is a former member of the Montgomery County school board, which recently passed a resolution saying it believes the requirements are too complex and should be delayed at least a year. The county superintendent, Jerry D. Weast, is expected to speak for the delay at the state board meeting on Tuesday.

But Weast appears to be alone among the state's superintendents, who have generally supported imposing the standards.

"The notion that it is worse to hold them back, rather than pushing them through unprepared, is criminal," said Andres Alonso, Baltimore's chief executive officer. Alonso said he has more than 1,000 students who haven't passed all four tests or will need to try to complete projects to graduate. But, he said, they are only a portion of the student population that needs to catch up. Thousands of other students, he said, have dropped out or are years behind.

Alonso is supported by a number of African-American education leaders.

"People need to stop using minority students as a justification for removing HSA as a graduation requirement. It's almost as if they're accepting that it is impossible for 'these' students to meet the standard, so let's eliminate the standard and pass them on anyway. That's just wrong," Barbara Desmon, a Baltimore County resident and chairman of a state minority student achievement initiative, said in an e-mail.

As the board meeting nears, some people are also criticizing Grasmick's office for limiting the public comment period before the vote. Kate Walsh, a school board member, said she has received numerous letters from people who wanted to comment but were shut out because there are only 20 slots. She has asked that the comment period be expanded.

"I am willing to sit there all day and all night if I have to," she said. "It's my job to listen to what the public has to say on this issue."

School board members have been getting letters and e-mails for the past several weeks. In some e-mails, teachers and parents have begged the board to delay the standards.

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