Maryland students will learn how they rank statewide on new achievement exams beginning with freshmen next year, under a proposal approved yesterday by the state school board.
In a hard-fought compromise, the board voted 9-3 to postpone requiring the new exams for diplomas, but agreed to rank students and report how they fare in relation to other Maryland students. The rankings will be placed on high school transcripts that are sent to colleges and potential employers.
"We're trying to find something for kids to take these tests seriously," said board member Edward Root. "You've got to do something between requiring the tests for graduation and making them have no meaning, and this does it."
The board's decision sent a reassuring signal about the state's education reform movement to principals, business leaders and other education activists, who had been closely watching yesterday's vote and strongly urging the board not to abandon the tests.
"What we wanted was for the momentum to continue, and that's going to happen now," said June E. Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Round- table for Education, which has been pushing for higher standards for high school diplomas to improve the quality of the work force.
Some state school board members had been considering abandoning the exams, saying there was too little funding in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget for next year to adequately prepare underperforming elementary and middle school pupils.
The high school exams -- to be administered in pilot form for the first time this school year -- were originally planned to become a requirement for graduation beginning with this year's seventh-graders, the Class of 2005.
The tests in mathematics, English, civics and other subjects would replace the Maryland Functional Tests, which are designed to ensure a minimal level of skill. Unlike the statewide Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests already administered to all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, which assess the performance of schools rather than of pupils, the new exams are intended to measure individual performance.
To avoid the prospect of thousands of students being denied diplomas after failing the exams, state educators had developed a $49 million plan to end social promotion and provide help to underperforming elementary and middle school pupils -- including mandatory summer school for eighth-graders performing below grade-level in math and reading.
Despite intense lobbying from legislators and educators, the governor gave the board $12 million of the money it had requested -- with an extra $7.5 million promised for 2002 -- prompting the board to scale back its plans for the tests.
"Because the funds are lacking to do what we consider important to do these assessments will not be a condition for graduation," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who crafted much of the compromise approved by the board.
The board agreed to move forward with the new tests, but the first students who might be required to pass the exams to graduate would be the Class of 2007 -- this year's fifth-graders -- provided that board members believe they have in place adequate help by 2003 for underperforming pupils.
Grasmick will appoint two committees to study the feasibility of placing endorsements on the diplomas of high-scoring students or offering incentives, such as college scholarships, to top performers.
Board members expressed concern that many students might not take the tests seriously in the years before the exams become required for graduation.
"If you don't have any sort of incentive or consequence for students, I know a lot of people who will take a three-hour nap during the test," said student board member David M. Iseminger.
To combat apathy, the state will report students' test performances on transcripts that are sent to colleges and to the growing number of companies that ask applicants for their high school grades. Rather than report raw scores, the state will rank performances by percentile -- reporting to students how they scored compared to others who took the exams.
"I think you have to have something that makes this meaningful," said board member Jo Ann T. Bell.
Two board members, Reginald Dunn and Judith A. McHale, objected to putting the scores on transcripts, saying that would be unfair if adequate help was not available to underperforming students.
"I'm concerned about the kids without the resources to succeed," McHale said. "I feel it's very, very difficult to put something on their permanent transcript."
A spokeswoman for the governor said Glendening supports the compromise reached by the board yesterday, adding that it will give time to evaluate the effectiveness of the plans to help underperforming students.
"This is right in line with what the governor had discussed with Dr. Grasmick," said press secretary Michelle Byrnie. "The governor is very pleased with the board's decision."