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Passing high school tests in Maryland will get increasingly difficult

Over the next four years, Maryland will gradually raise the passing score on new math and English tests needed to graduate from a public high school.

The Maryland State Board of Education voted Tuesday to make a 3, on a scale of 1 to 5, the passing score for the next school year on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, exams. The passing score will rise incrementally to a 4 by the fourth year.

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The new standard means students will not be required to achieve what is considered the national passing score until the 2019-2020 school year.

Thousands of students across the state will struggle to meet even that lowered standard. In 2015, 42 percent of Maryland students who took the Algebra I exam and 39 percent of those who took the English 10 test scored less than a three.

If the standard had been in effect last year, more than half of Baltimore County's students would not have passed the math test and 35 percent would not have passed the English test.

In Baltimore, 70 percent would not have passed the math exam and more than half would not have passed the English exam.

The Maryland State Education Association, which represents most of the state's teachers, has not taken a position on the draft regulations. Cheryl Bost, the group's vice president, said that while the union is "pleased there is a transition plan," teachers are concerned about whether they will be able to give students the individual attention they need to pass the exams.

Thousands of students, education officials say, will be taking the tests multiple times to try to pass, and many will likely use a loophole that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge by doing a project that is approved by their teacher and other administrators.

With such a large percentage of students failing the exams, teachers will have many more students doing projects who they must work with individually.

Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said he supports the phase-in approach.

But Bebe Verdery, the ACLU's Maryland education director, objects to the high-stakes tests. Many states have repealed the tests, she said, because evidence does not show that they increase achievement.

"If the state board is going to persist in having high-stakes graduation exams, it is imperative they provide and guarantee high-quality instruction so that students have the opportunity to pass the test," Verdery said.

The board's vote, which came after several months of discussion, is preliminary and still could be changed. A draft regulation will be published and then the public has 30 days to comment. The board can review its decision in May and June and make changes if needed.

Maryland school officials surveyed thousands of teachers on the issue, and a slight majority said they opposed setting the standard as high as the board did, fearing that too many students would fail.

Maryland has required high school students to pass tests to graduate for about two decades. Each time the tests were changed and made more difficult, students improved over time and were able to pass them. Few students have been unable to graduate solely on the basis of their failure to pass the tests.

Officials said they believe students will take the PARCC test more seriously when they know it counts.

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But the new PARCC tests, which came after the introduction of the widely used Common Core standards, are designed to make sure students are prepared to take college-level classes or go into a living-wage job. That standard is far higher than the old Maryland High School Assessments.

Two of those HSAs, one in American government and the other in biology, will remain requirements. In all, students will have to pass those plus the two new PARCC exams.

"There are still too many questions about the PARCC exam and the time our students have been exposed to the Common Core," Bost said.

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