Since most Maryland students didn't pass a tough new test that eventually will be required for graduation, should the state lower the bar?
The state school board began considering the question Tuesday as members discussed options, including setting a lower passing grade or offering a second-tier diploma for students who finish required high school courses but can't pass the PARCC test now used in a dozen states.
The Maryland board has until May to decide what standard to set for students entering ninth grade next fall.
High schools in the state gave the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, tied to the Common Core curriculum, for the first time last spring. A much smaller percentage of students passed than did the previous high school exam, known as the High School Assessment. Thousands failed.
At its monthly meeting, the board engaged in a spirited debate over what to do about that.
Board member Chester Finn reacted swiftly to a suggestion that the state accept a lower standard. "I thought the move to PARCC was to increase standards," he said. "We are headed toward telling Maryland students they will get a Maryland diploma and they are not ready." He said a low standard would mislead the public.
He suggested the board consider adopting a two-diploma system, one for students who passed PARCC and are considered ready for college and a second diploma, equivalent to what is given today, for students who have fulfilled the course requirements and achieve minimum passing grades on state tests.
But school board member James H. DeGraffenreidt said he is opposed to such a dual diploma system because he believes it would institutionalize the achievement gap for groups of students with low pass rates, including low-income, minority and special education students.
DeGraffenreidt said he believes it would be better to keep the goal high but gradually phase in the standards, starting with a low passing score and setting specific dates to raise it. The question for the state would then be how quickly students might be able to meet the new standards.
On last spring's tests, about 45 percent of students passed the 10th-grade English exam and only 40 percent of students passed the Algebra I test. If the state lowered the passing score to three on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest, the pass rates would rise to 65 percent for Algebra and 74 percent for English.
The goal of having high percentages of high school graduates ready for college is unrealistic in the near future, some education experts say. Less than half the states require passage of high school exit exams to get a diploma. And only in the past decade has the idea been entertained of making college readiness a graduation standard.
"There is no state in the U.S. that has made the high school graduation requirement the same as a college-readiness requirement," said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. "It is just not possible politically or otherwise to introduce a system that would prevent that many students from graduating."
Because last year's test takers knew the results didn't count for them, education officials say they believe pass rates will go up as students view the tests more seriously.
In addition, students can take the tests numerous times, and they can substitute a teacher-supervised project if they fail a test. Because the bar for passing state exams was relatively low in the past, very few students were prevented from graduating.
Whether all students will ever be college ready is still a question, said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. He believes most states will phase in higher passing scores.
School board member Linda Eberhart, a former teacher, said she is deeply concerned that Maryland may raise standards too quickly for students who have not had the Common Core curriculum for most of their schooling.
"It is going to take 13 years to achieve these new standards," Eberhart said, indicating that the first class likely to be fully prepared are today's kindergartners.
She is concerned, she said, that next year's ninth-graders will be held to an unrealistic standard.
"It is a high standard, and it would be unjust, in my view, to jerk up the standards," Steiner said. "You have to build a ladder, but you also have to tell the truth."