The Maryland school board all but formally decided yesterday to drop the state's new high school exams as a graduation requirement, and several board members indicated they are considering abolishing the tests next month.
Escalating a political battle brewing for months, board members said they are scaling back their drive for the tests because they are upset that Gov. Parris N. Glendening gave them less than half the $49 million they requested to help prepare elementary and middle school pupils.
They said that, without extra remedial help, too many children would be set up for failure.
"I want schools to move forward, but if we don't have the money, we shouldn't have the tests," said board member George W. Fisher Sr. of Caroline County.
A spokesman for the governor said Glendening provided enough funding in next year's budget, a total of $19 million, for the state board to continue the high school tests and will contribute more money in the 2001-2002 fiscal year.
The governor has committed to giving the board all but $1.5 million of the $21 million it wants to help struggling middle school students within two years, spokesman Michael Morrill said.
Morrill also suggested the board should not complain about a lack of money when billions of dollars in state aid already go to public schools.
"If the schools are not able to do what they need to for $3.3 billion, then they need to start rethinking their programs from start to finish," he said.
To which state board President Edward Andrews replied: "That's an attack on every teacher and principal in the state. I'm not going to dignify that comment. I'm not going to respond to that."
Yesterday's clash between the state board and the governor's office over the high school tests has been building throughout the just completed annual session of the General Assembly.
The board has been developing the high school exams in English, U.S. government, math and other subjects, with the goal of requiring them for a high-school diploma beginning with the Class of 2005 -- this year's seventh-graders.
The tests are the last major piece of the state's sweeping education reform effort that began in 1989 and has primarily involved statewide tests in various subjects for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.
Maryland's business community has sought the more rigorous high school exams to replace the lower-level Maryland Functional Tests and improve the quality of graduates entering the work force.
To ensure that thousands aren't denied high school diplomas, the state board proposed last fall an ambitious $49 million plan to end social promotion and provide extra help to low-performing elementary and middle school pupils.
The plan sought $4 million for early-childhood programs, $24 million to help first- and second-graders and $21 million for middle school assistance, including mandatory summer school for eighth-graders below grade level in math and reading.
"The $49 million is not an absolute cure, but it would have helped a lot," board member Walter Sondheim Jr. said yesterday.
But the budget approved by the governor and legislature for next year totals about $19 million for the state board's initiatives, including $7 million for early-childhood programs and $12 million of the $21 million sought for middle-schoolers.
After furious lobbying from state legislators, Glendening also agreed to increase the middle school funding to $19.5 million for the 2001-2002 school year. State board members said they plan to ask the governor for that extra money for 2000-2001, too, but Morrill insisted no more money is available.
Over the past month, as it became clear that the governor was not going to fully fund their $49 million plan, state board members and educators have been struggling with the direction of the exams.
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick does not want the tests killed and has proposed a compromise to keep their development moving forward.
Under her plan, the state would develop the tests on schedule but not make passing them a graduation requirement until she believes there's enough money to help low-performing students. Scores still would be reported for school systems, schools and individual students, perhaps on transcripts.
"Everyone seems consistent that there has to be some way for recording individual results, not just school results," Grasmick said. If not, "we really won't know if students don't have the skills or just don't care."
All state board members informally agreed yesterday that, without adequate money for remediation, the tests should not be required to earn diplomas. They intend to vote on Grasmick's compromise next month.
But at least three board members -- and perhaps as much as half of the board -- said they will strongly consider going further than Grasmick's compromise, supporting a move to abolish the tests. "To give these tests without assistance, it's wrong," said Andrews, of Montgomery County. Even if the tests aren't required for graduation, "we still say to the kids, 'You're dumb, you failed.'"
Andrews added that he is likely to propose an alternative to Grasmick's compromise at next month's board meeting to abolish the tests.
But several other board member sharply disagreed and seemed surprised that the idea of killing the tests was even being considered.
"For fear of hurting the image of some students, we should not give up on setting a high standard and moving toward it," said board member Raymond V. "Buzz" Bartlett, of Howard County. "I don't see why we should quit because we can't get everything we need for these kids."