Md. sets up safety net for students; School board orders summer classes to aid those falling behind; 'Major cultural change'; Anti-harassment rule also OK'd, but gays not explicitly shielded


The state school board voted yesterday to require all low-performing Maryland eighth-graders to attend summer school to improve their reading and math skills, a move that could affect more than 30,000 students within two years.

The board also opted for a broadly worded anti-harassment regulation, rejecting an explicit protection of gay students. It ordered educators to draw up plans for seminars to be held at schools across the state promoting safety and respect for all groups.

The summer school program is part of a safety net of early help for students that the board created yesterday in preparation for the state's new high school exams in English, U.S. government, math and other subjects. The tests, which officials say will be rigorous, will be required to earn a high school diploma, beginning with the Class of 2005.

The intervention plan -- for prekindergarten through 12th grade -- will cost the state an estimated $49 million in the first year.

It aims to provide additional support for students falling behind. Local schools will be required to develop annual tests of students' skills in reading and math to ensure that they're at grade level.

The plan would discourage social promotions, the practice of advancing students to the next grade level regardless of whether they have met standards, but it doesn't specify whether low-performing students should be made to repeat grades.

Instead, it requires schools to provide extra help through programs after school, on Saturdays or in the summer.

Maryland's effort is part of a national trend toward increasing accountability and ending social promotion by making students meet standards in order to be promoted to the next grade. This summer, many large school systems around the country reinvigorated their summer school programs for students who had fallen behind.

"We're asking for a major cultural change so schools take responsibility for each child," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan Washington group dedicated to school reform. "If any child in Maryland is not meeting the expectations set by the local school system and the state, that school has to have an intervention plan to help that child succeed," said Jennings, who helped develop the Maryland intervention plan.

Beginning with the first class of Maryland students scheduled to take the state's new high school exams, eighth-graders performing below grade level in reading or math will face 20 days of mandatory summer school in classes limited to 15 students. The program could cost the state $9 million, based on projections that half of Maryland's 62,000 seventh-graders will require the extra help in 2001.

Students who don't meet the standards at the end of the summer -- and those who refuse to attend the summer classes -- will be allowed into high school but will be required to take remedial classes. Once their reading and math skills improved, they would be allowed to return to regular high school course work.

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, said that in addition to the eighth-grade skills tests, a similar exam will be developed for elementary schools -- probably for the end of third grade, to ensure that pupils are meeting standards.

"This is what needs to be in place to realize the dream of all students achieving at a high level," said S. Paul Reville of the Pew Foundation for Standards-Based Reform at Harvard University.

The eighth-grade and elementary-level skills tests would be in addition to the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the exams given to the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders each year. Those tests are designed to measure the performance of schools but do not give reliable scores for individual students.

The intervention plan also calls for major improvements in teacher training -- including requiring middle and high school teachers to major in the subject areas they teach -- and an expansion of public and private prekindergarten learning opportunities.

Financial incentives will be given to day-care programs that meet educational standards for young children.

State board members demanded in January 1998 that the intervention plan be developed before the start of Maryland's new high school tests, saying it is unfair to require that students pass the tests for high school graduation unless they are given a fair chance.

'Unacceptable' prospect

"Everybody wants high standards and everybody wants assessments, but we know that 50 percent of students would fail one or more of the tests, and 95 percent would be minorities and 100 percent would be poor," said board Vice President Edward Andrews. "That was a prospect for us on this board that was absolutely unacceptable."

Andrews warned that if adequate state funding isn't given to local school systems to implement the new plan, he will introduce a resolution to abolish the high school exams.

State educators hope to pay for the plan with $49 million in additional funds they are requesting from the General Assembly and state and federal money for poor students that could be diverted.

In voting on the new anti-harassment regulation, the divided board had to choose between a broadly worded policy calling for "all students in Maryland's public schools" to be safe and free from harassment, and an alternative that called for protection against specific types of harassment, including that based on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

At an emotional two-hour hearing Tuesday, gay-rights advocates calling for the explicit protection of gay students, and gay-rights opponents said including the words "sexual orientation" in the regulations would destroy morality in the schools.

State educators said yesterday that four Maryland school systems -- in Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties -- have policies outlining explicit protection against harassment for gay students.

Board members said they agonized over their decision. Ten of the 12 members voted for the broadly worded regulation, saying that any list of specific types of harassment was bound to leave out some students. The two dissenting board members were Jo Ann T. Bell and Reginald Dunn.

'A real problem'

"Once we start to list categories, I have a real problem," said board member George W. Fisher Sr. "Once we list categories, we're going to miss somebody."

Board members said the most critical factor will be the application of the policy, rather than its wording. "Words are irrelevant in this," said board member Judith A. McHale. "What really counts is what we do about it."

In passing the broadly worded policy, the board directed state educators to expand efforts to teach sensitivity across Maryland. Last month, the state held a seminar for school administrators on protecting students from harassment.

"It's not enough to [talk]. We need an action plan for how we are going to implement programs to ensure the protection of all students," Andrews said.

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