Maryland State Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery

Maryland State Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / July 23, 2013)

Starting next year, students will face tougher requirements to graduate from Maryland's public high schools.

The state school board voted Tuesday to replace the English and Algebra I High School Assessment — graduation requirements since 2009 — with new tests, tied to the Common Core curriculum, that are expected to be more difficult to pass. The tests, generally given by the time students finish the 10th grade, will be phased in starting with this fall's rising freshmen and sophomores.

"They will be more rigorous," said Jack Smith, chief academic officer. "Every time we raise the level of rigor it causes concern, but we should still raise the level of rigor in a thoughtful way."

Education advocates expect the number of students failing the exams to increase.

State officials had always planned a transition to the new assessments for grades three through eight in the coming school year because they are designed to go with the Common Core, which was first taught last year. There are no consequences for students in those grades if they fail the tests.

The schedule for the rollout of the new high school tests was more sensitive because they carry high stakes: Students must pass them to graduate.

Some educators expressed concern about the timeline, saying they would have preferred holding off until the new curriculum has been taught for several years. Maryland decided to delay the professional consequences for a teacher receiving an evaluation based on test scores because of similar concerns.

Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance said he fully supports having graduation requirements, but believes the tests — known by the acronym PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — should not have such a major impact for students in the first year. The pass scores — or how many correct answers a student will need to pass — will not be decided until a year from now, six months after students have taken the test.

"I believe school systems would benefit having [pass] scores in place for the new assessments prior to holding students accountable," Dance said.

"I would have liked to see the PARCC results being accountable to the entering ninth-graders in 2015, which is the Class of 2019. These individuals would have had two years under new standards prior to being held accountable."

Concerns were also raised by education advocates.

"The ACLU is concerned about applying high-stakes consequences to student graduation, using a new test and a new curriculum, particularly for 10th-grade English," said Bebe Verdery, education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "Students have not had the preparation of prior years using this curriculum, and it seems the adults are still trying to work out the glitches."

Half of the states that were planning to use PARCC or a similar test for the Common Core called Smarter Balanced as their exit exam in 2012 have reversed those plans, including some who have delayed the implementation, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit public policy institute that has studied the issue.

For example, North Carolina has decided to delay the transition to the new tests until the 2016-2017 school year. And Massachusetts schools can use either the PARCC next year or the old high school assessments as a graduation requirement.

Verdery said she believed Maryland's testing plan is rushed and ought to be delayed, as it has been in some states. That sentiment was echoed by some state school board members who questioned whether the tests should be delayed as a graduation requirement for a year or two.

But state school Superintendent Lillian Lowery said the local school districts are ready to use PARCC.

Smith, the chief academic officer, told the board the state had backed down from giving all six of the new high school PARCC assessments that would be available next year. He said teachers and administrators had concerns about giving so many new tests in one year and about whether there were enough computers in schools to handle the online tests.

The state will give three of those tests: English for 10th-graders, Algebra I and Algebra II. The Algebra II exam will not yet be a graduation requirement, but will show students, teachers and parents whether the student is at a level to be ready for college or a career after high school.

Smith said no decision has been made on when the other math and English PARCC tests will be given.

Students will continue to have to pass the old biology and American government High School Assessments. Those 11th- and 12th-graders who have passed the HSAs do not need to take the new PARCC.

The state is one of 21 in the nation that have high school exams that must be passed for graduation.

Maryland students currently take the exams in Algebra I, biology, geometry and 10th-grade English at the end of the year they take the course. They have numerous chances to take the tests and can do a project instead of passing the test to meet the graduation requirement. Only a handful of students have been prevented from graduating in the state each year since the exams were instituted.

State officials said that students can still complete a project if they are unable to pass the PARCC tests.

The New America Foundation argues in a recent report that the PARCC tests were designed to gauge whether a student is ready for college or a career and should not be used as a graduation requirement. The report's authors say that if states use the tests as a graduation requirement, they may dilute the rigor of the Common Core by dropping the level that students must achieve to graduate.

The report says Maryland is one of six states that face the most "nuanced and challenging transitions" during the shift to the new tests because they are phasing in the exams while continuing to give the old ones.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com