May target looms

Over 4,600 seniors falling short on HSA requirement

March 26, 2009|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

While some state and school officials seem optimistic that thousands of seniors will meet new state graduation requirements by May, the task for some schools is much more challenging than for others.

More than half of the 4,660 students who are in danger of not getting diplomas because they have not passed the High School Assessments live in Baltimore City or Prince George's County and are concentrated in a couple of dozen high schools.

In Baltimore County, the pass rates varied so widely that at one school - Eastern Technology - every senior had met the requirement while at another, Dundalk, nearly a quarter had not. Many of those seniors were striving to complete projects that proved they had mastered the material or were studying for a retake of tests to be offered in April and May.

FOR THE RECORD - A chart that accompanied an article Thursday about High School Assessments misstated a fact about the Baltimore School for the Arts because of inaccurate information provided by the city school system. All seniors at the high school have met the graduation requirements.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

Beginning this year, the Class of 2009 must pass four exams in biology, algebra, American government and English II or meet alternative requirements to get a diploma.

At Thurgood Marshall High School in the city, 62 percent of students still had not passed as of March 13, when the schools reported their latest numbers to the state. The city's Frederick Douglass High School has 98 students, or 59 percent of its seniors, yet to pass.

"While the state has maintained that no student will be prevented from graduating because of the HSA requirement, it is now clear that at least hundreds, if not a thousand, will be denied a diploma - even if they passed all required courses," said Bebe Verdery, education director of the ACLU of Maryland.

While some schools are making a heroic effort, Verdery said, "the large number of students who haven't passed at certain schools shows that the failure is with adults, not just with students. The state has not ensured that highly qualified teachers are available to all students in schools in higher poverty areas."

But school officials and principals were surprisingly confident. In Anne Arundel County, school officials pointed to an increasing number of students passing the HSA as evidence they are capable of achieving a 100 percent pass rate by May.

At the schools with the highest failure rates - Meade at 12 percent and North County at 10 percent - students from those schools and others are working on 237 projects, said county school spokesman Bob Mosier.

"The fact that we've cut the number of [failing students] in half is good, so to speak, but we've got more work to do," Mosier said.

Just less than 4 percent - 135 students - of the Class of 2009 in Howard County have not met the HSA requirement to graduate. Howard County spokeswoman Patti Caplan said it is too early to predict how many students will not graduate.

More than half of the 135 students are working on projects, and the system has high expectations as a result of what she described as "very good success with [them] ... in the very first part of this year."

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso says he is optimistic about his schools' progress. The figures released by the state do not account for 1,759 projects that Baltimore seniors submitted this month; teachers will score them this weekend.

At Reginald F. Lewis High, seniors started the school year with more than 300 projects to do. "I am down to about 77 projects to complete, and it's through the efforts of my teachers that this has been done," said Principal Sylvia Hall.

In Baltimore County, 7 percent of seniors are at risk. "We do anticipate that the number of students that will achieve the requirements will improve," said spokeswoman Kara E. B. Calder.

Teachers have worked after school and on weekends with students, said Tom Shouldice, principal of Dundalk, where 24 percent of seniors have yet to meet requirements. He said he was personally taking on a small group of students whose parents have yet to sign off on doing the projects, despite repeated attempts to alert them through letters and phone calls. "We are doing absolutely everything we can," he said.

At Lansdowne, where 17 percent have yet to qualify, 30 or so students are expected to finish projects by April 3. In an interesting twist, Principal Lynda Whitlock said those completing projects are turning to friends with a simple message: "Pass the test."

"We like that motivation," Whitlock said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Nicole Fuller, Arin Gencer, Sara Neufeld and John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

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