Grasmick to seek 180-day waiver

Fewer school days could harm performance on tests

February 12, 2010|By Liz Bowie |

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will ask the state school board to waive a law requiring public school students to attend classes for 180 days this year because of closures caused by the region's record snowfall.

Grasmick has taken the step of offering a blanket statewide waiver only once in her nearly 20-year tenure - after ice storms in the mid-1990s. In other limited circumstances, the state board has allowed a small number of districts to shorten the academic calendar, Grasmick said.

"I don't take it lightly because of the instructional considerations," she said, but added, "This is historic."

Grasmick will make the request to the board in late February, but it was unclear Thursday whether the board would approve the waiver. In 1995, a divided school board reluctantly granted the waiver to every district. And after a major snowstorm in 2003, the board gave her the authority to hand out waivers, but she did not allow all school districts to use them.

By Tuesday, many students will have been out of class as long as they were during their winter holiday in late December and early January. For example, Baltimore County builds seven extra days into its school calendar in case of snow and has used all of those days. Baltimore adds days at the end of its school year for each day it closes. The city has closed eight days so far, and CEO Andrés Alonso has written to Grasmick asking for a waiver.

Closing school for so many days in a row in February could affect scores on the Maryland School Assessment in March, Grasmick said, as well as make it difficult for students to be well prepared for the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams later in the spring. The board could also move back the MSA test date.

To make up for the lost school days, districts can take away holidays or part of spring break, or add to the end of the year - all options that are considered unattractive.

Grasmick said that Queen Anne's and Garrett counties have asked her to allow students to go to school on Presidents Day, which is Monday, and she has given her consent. By today, she expects several other districts to have formally made the request, although she added it might not help much because more snow is predicted for Monday.

District superintendents are considering whether to eliminate some teacher training days and shorten spring break. "It is unpopular with parents," she said, because families plan trips during the break.

Adding days to the end of the school year can be done, but some schools are not air-conditioned, and Grasmick said she doesn't want students and teachers in 100-degree classrooms in late June.

Stuck at home behind mounds of snow and hoping to see a plow soon, Grasmick said she doesn't know how many days she will recommend that schools be allowed to forgo this year until she gets into her office today and looks at each district's calendar.

Schools are required to be in session for 180 days a year, but some systems schedule longer school years. In addition, some districts were closed more days in December than others because of snow.

Grasmick said she also is in discussions with testing experts to get their opinions on exactly how many days of school students would have to miss before test scores are affected. "My worry is that our students will look as though they are not performing [as well]. Can we consider this an aberrant year?" she said.

While she could push back the testing date, she said, it would be complicated. The contractor the state hires to grade the MSAs has a small window in its schedule to do the work.

If the test was moved back, getting the results could be delayed by months and the state then could not comply with a law that says it must identify which schools are failing to meet achievement targets to the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education can grant a waiver, but Grasmick said she wants more evidence that giving the tests in March might have a negative effect on testing.

After she has gathered more data, she said, she will go to the state's school superintendents on Feb. 19 to ask them what they would like to do. "I want to give the superintendents the best pros and cons," she said.

Even though the MSAs are expected to be replaced with a new national test by 2012, Grasmick said they do still matter, particularly as a diagnostic measure for schools, parents and school systems.

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