When the state introduces a new set of standardized tests next year, high school students will be under pressure to pass them in order to get a diploma.
The new 10th-grade English and Algebra 1 tests are likely to be hard if they are like the PARCC tests they will be replacing. Last year, less than half of high school students passed the English test and about a third passed the Algebra 1 test.
The new exams haven’t been field tested yet, and passing scores have not yet yet been determined. The Maryland General Assembly wanted the state school board to give at least students taking the test for the first time a break. The passed a law saying there would be a one year pause. While the students might have to sit for the tests, passing the exams would not be required to graduate.
But a divided state school board on Tuesday couldn’t agree on how much of a grace period. One faction wanted to give a one-year cushion that would allow struggling students to get a diploma without passing the tests; another wanted two years.
So they walked away without any grace period at all. Neither side was able to collect six votes to get a regulation printed to comply with the law passed earlier this year. The board will have to vote next month when two more board members are present.
On Tuesday, the board seemed stymied. On one side were school board member such as David Steiner, the John Hopkins University School of Education professor and head of an institute for education policy. He believed that giving a two-year grace period was unnecessary and said he believed this demand by the legislature was, in fact, a way for those who want to do away with the high stakes high school tests to get a toe in the door.
“I love having high standards but there are children that are growing up in poverty. They are raising themselves. Now and then we have to look at the individual students.”
State School Board Member Warner Sumpter
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Steiner, along with several other members, voted to give students a year’s grace period.
On the other side were members who believed caution was needed. “These are good kids,” said retired Marine Corps. Brig. Gen. Warner Sumpter, who was elected president of the state board Tuesday. “I love having high standards but there are children that are growing up in poverty. They are raising themselves. Now and then we have to look at the individual students.”
Sumpter said he feared students would get discouraged and drop out if they failed the test in their junior year. State Superintendent Karen Salmon had proposed the two year grace period believing, she said, that the legislature might interfere again if the school board didn’t give two years.
The board will have to vote next month when two more board members are present.
The change, Salmon said, would effect a very small number of students overall in the beginning. Some 50 percent of students in the state take the Algebra I test in middle school and then pass it. Those students who take Algebra I in high school and fail it can take it again. When students fail the test twice they can do a bridge project that is intended to prove they have learned the material, even if they can’t pass the test.
Mostly it is struggling students who are taking the test for the first time in their junior or senior year. Many of those students have disabilities, issues with poor attendance, are homeless or learning English for the first time.
Del. Michele Guyton, a Democrat representing northern Baltimore County and a former state school board member, said the legislature had given a year’s pause to the testing. The law, she said, was “designed to slow the rush of testing and what looked like sloppy implementation” of the new tests.
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Because the new tests that will be administered for the first time this coming school, there is no time to field test them and work through glitches, she said. Guyton said she was disappointed in the lack of consensus by the board. The longer it takes for the school board to act, she said, the longer school districts and students are left wondering what the rules will be next year.
“We need to get the information out to the school systems,” she said.
“The state will administer a brand new assessment in English and Algebra without having field test those assessments for a year and with the intent of requiring students to pass those tests to graduate,” said John Woolums, a spokesman for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. Woolums said a task force has recommended the state drop the graduation tests. Maryland is one of a small number of states that still makes high school tests a graduation requirement, and Woolums said the tests could be replaced with end of course exams.
The state school board did vote unanimously on another testing issue - one that affects all high school students. A new high school science test that combines a number of sciences will not be required for graduation for the next several years.
Salmon said she would like to reevaluate the approach of integrating several of the sciences into one test. Salmon is concerned that students might be taught the material over a period of years while taking physics, biology and chemistry, and then have to take the exam years after they had learned some of the material.