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Half of students fail unofficial exit exams at Md. high schools

Half of the high school students who took the new Maryland end-of-course examinations failed under standards approved yesterday by the State Board of Education - a result so dismal that the board is further delaying making the tests a requirement of graduation.

The "cut scores," approved after a lengthy process involving educators, test experts and state officials, revealed huge disparities that state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick termed staggering.

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A third of white students and almost three-quarters of African-American students, for example, failed the algebra test. Ninety-one percent of students with disabilities failed the English test, while 70 percent of students from low-income families failed in biology.

The tests are administered in those three subjects, plus government.

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Aware that denying diplomas to thousands of Maryland teens would carry severe political and racial implications, the board extended by a year, to the freshman class of 2005, the date the exams will count toward graduation. And it won't make a final decision on whether to withhold diplomas until its December meeting, when 2003 results will be available.

Yesterday, state board members looked grimly at a graph showing results of the algebra test. "I look at these numbers, and they tell me that we haven't made progress" in closing the black-white achievement gap, said Jo Ann T. Bell of Bowie, the board vice president.

Grasmick heaved a sigh of relief when the board unanimously approved the standards after a long discussion in which members admitted to being caught in a vise. "If we set [the passing scores] too high," said Philip S. Benzil of Westminster, "we could have a disaster like other states. If we set it too low, it means nothing."

Grasmick, who made her decision on the passing scores 10 days ago, had been under intense pressure to lower the bar, especially on behalf of African-Americans, those in special education and those for whom English is a second language - 91 percent of whom failed the English exam.

"This is not a ceiling; this is a floor," Grasmick told the board. "Schools will have to be much more prescriptive, now that we know where the work needs to be done."

The disparities among demographic groups uncovered in the High School Assessment are similar to those disclosed in first-year results of the Maryland School Assessment. MSA scores were released Friday for grades three, five, eight and 10.

Some who attended the meeting in Baltimore yesterday criticized the way the state is carrying out its new assessment. "If this is just a floor," asked Bebe Verdery, education reform director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, "then how could only 50 percent pass?"

Jarod Hightower, who will enter his senior year at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute on Tuesday, said school administrators haven't done a good job of informing students about the tests and their consequences. Hightower, Poly's representative to the Maryland Association of Student Councils, noted that high school exam scores are supposed to appear on student grade transcripts, "but I haven't seen mine yet."

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Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, predicted scores will improve when the tests become official. "Once the tests have consequences for students," she said, "they're going to do better."

In order to concentrate on the new exams, the state board yesterday also voted to draw the curtain on the Maryland Functional Tests after this school year. Those tests first appeared in the late 1970s, and passing them has been required since 1989. But Grasmick said the tests no longer measure the content of the Maryland high school curriculum.

Some districts are moving to address the deficiencies revealed by the MSA and HSA. Patricia M. Richardson, schools superintendent in St. Mary's County, said her district is planning an 11-month school year for students failing to make progress.

"It will be structured much like the regular school day, with transportation and lunch, but there will be extremely small classes, allowing for intensive instruction, and master teachers," she said.

California recently delayed the consequences of its exit test from 2004 to 2006, while Massachusetts is already denying diplomas, according to the Center on Education Policy, a research group that advocates for better schools. Nineteen states have diploma-driven testing programs. Five more, including Maryland, intend to withhold diplomas by 2008.


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