Maryland students starting high school next fall won’t need to achieve higher scores on standardized exams in order to receive a diploma after the state school board voted Tuesday to reverse plans to phase in increased graduation standards.
After an intense debate, the school board decided to keep current graduation requirements, despite prior plans to raise the required scores for ninth graders beginning this academic year. Students will continue to need to earn a score of at least a three — not a four — on their Algebra I and English 10 standardized exams to graduate.
For thousands of Maryland students, the decision could mean the difference between passing and failing.
The board’s decision came after a research report linked success in college classes with students who earned at least a three on the standardized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests.
The tests are graded on a scale of one to five, with four and five considered passing. When Maryland first began using the tougher PARCC exams — with tests in English and math in grades three through eight and Algebra 1 and English 10 in high school — the majority of students were failing the exams.
WIth the higher fail rate, the state school board decided several years ago to phase in the standard for passing, setting three as a passing score and planning to increase the standard to four for the class of 2024. Those students will be entering ninth grade next fall.
But a research report from the Maryland Assessment Research Center presented to the school board this week showed that students who graduated with a score of three achieved a grade point average of at least a B minus in their first year of college. The report, which the Maryland State School Superintendent Karen Salmon called “compelling,” was reviewed by a committee of assessment experts from around the country.
Three years ago, the state began tracking how successful Maryland students are in their freshman college classes. Researchers found students who scored a three on the PARCC algebra exam had a mean grade point average of 2.96. Students students who scored a three on the English 10 exam had a mean grade point average of 3.14 in college.
The majority of state school board members said the data showed that the state did not need to raise the standard to ensure students were ready for college.
“What is our goal? What are we trying to do?” said Clarence Crawford, a school board member. “We are trying to graduate students who will go on to college and be successful.”
Other state board members voiced the concerns that setting the bar too high would discourage students, and that those with disabilities or immigrant students may barely pass but still have successful careers after overcoming their difficulties.
“I personally and professionally represent children who are bright, but don’t necessarily show it on a test,” said school board member Joan Mele-McCarthy.
And the board’s student member urged her fellow members to consider her view that too much emphasis is placed on testing and academic achievement in school rather than the development of the whole child.
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An immigrant and Towson High School student, Noureen Badwi, said people often forget “the purpose of education is to make good civically engaged people who are kind to one another. I think we should focus on the purpose of children’s lives."
Board members also noted the report’s analysis that about 10,000 10th graders who took the PARCC English 10 test and 10,000 ninth graders who took the Algebra I test would not have passed if the state required a passing score of four to get a diploma in 2019. Last year, 42 percent of students taking the English 10 and 27 percent taking Algebra 1 scored a four or a five.
But school board member David Steiner still wanted to raise the passing score to 4, saying that Maryland students have mediocre test scores compared to the rest of the nation. The United States is falling far behind countries with similar economic standards, Steiner said, and if the country did not raise student achievement it would become “a third world economy.”
"We as a nation have been ratcheting down our expectations,” Steiner said. “We are rescuing students with an artificial safety valve.”
He noted that students who can’t pass the tests can still graduate if they do a project with a teacher to prove they have mastered the material on the test, and thus can get a diploma. And a small percentage of students who retake failed PARCC exams then pass.
Expressing similar concerns, school board member Justin Hartings said the graduation standard ought to be correct and lasting.
“It seems like in this state we have a pattern of promising reform and higher achievement," he said, "that is always right around the corner.”