Some Maryland school districts are offering incoming ninth-graders extra help to ensure they'll surmount the newest obstacle between them and their high school diplomas: exit exams.
The students are destined to be graduates in the Class of 2009, but only if they overcome High School Assessment tests in English, U.S. government, biology and algebra.
High-schoolers have had to take the four exams since 2003, but incoming ninth-graders will have to earn a passing score on each - or obtain a minimum composite score on several tests - to graduate.
Toward that end, schools officials have added support courses that parallel classes in test subjects. They're emphasizing basic subjects such as reading and math and making students wait longer to take more complex subjects on which they'll be tested.
Some fear this might lead to more students dropping out. But school officials say the goal is to help students succeed the first time they take the test - although they're also exploring ways to support those who fail.
"It's the enrichment model as opposed to remediation," said Frank DeStefano, Baltimore's high schools director.
Mary Gable, Anne Arundel County's director of high schools, said: "We're not providing the remediation only after [students fail]. We're providing the support before and during.
More than half of U.S. states use exit exams or are phasing them in at high schools. Elementary and middle school pupils in Maryland have taken state tests for years; introduction of the required HSA culminates years of planning.
"What we have now is the high schools have been brought into this accountability load that all the other grades have been part of since the early 1990s," said Donald R. Morrison, spokesman for Harford County schools.
Some school systems plan to set aside time during the school day to help prepare students for the exams.
Many freshmen will start out with courses that are linked to the tests, such as U.S. government. However, next year, several districts, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, will postpone such classes for students at risk of doing poorly. Instead, students will take courses in subjects that prepare them for the more challenging classes on which they'll be tested.
For example, students in Baltimore's neighborhood high schools will study physical science as freshmen and a chemistry course that covers biochemistry in 10th grade before tackling biology and its companion test as juniors.
In Anne Arundel, some middle school pupils identified as needing extra help will, when they get to high school, take American history before taking junior-year U.S. government. County school officials say this will give them a good foundation and provide more experience in the writing and analytical skills needed to do well on the test. Baltimore has similar plans, DeStefano said.
About 700 of Anne Arundel's 5,500 freshmen who scored at "basic" levels on the Maryland School Assessment reading and math tests as seventh-graders will take additional periods of English and algebra, Gable said. The students will study those subjects every day as opposed to every other day.
The school system has broken off data analysis from an algebra course and will offer it separately. Some Anne Arundel students will take a period of reading interventions.
In Baltimore, many incoming freshmen arrive with fifth-grade math and reading skills, DeStefano said. To address that problem, Baltimore ran a pilot program that offered a daily, 90-minute dose of algebra with the same teacher during the current school year; after its success, they plan to roll it out at neighborhood schools in the fall.
Carroll County already offers an additional support course for algebra and plans one next year for geometry, said Steve Johnson, Carroll's director of curriculum.
Harford County is tinkering with its class schedule as a way to better prepare high school students for tests.
School officials there have proposed uniform schedules among the nine high schools, said Morrison. The change, though opposed by some, would provide flexibility to offer extra assistance to those who need it, Morrison said.
But some worry that school systems are going too far in prepping students for the tests.
Course loads for targeted students in Anne Arundel will be dominated by math and English and reading, leaving little room for electives or even science or social studies that will be tested later on. That could cause some students to drop out, critics say.
Jane Andrew, president of the Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education, an Anne Arundel group that promotes a well-rounded curriculum, said that one of the benefits of the current block schedule is freedom for electives. Some students might learn concepts such as math or reading when applying them in electives such as an auto-repair course or cooking class, she said.
"They cannot learn in the one-size-fits-all methodology," she said.
But Gable said one reason that students might not be excited about school is because they're struggling.
"We certainly are concerned about student engagement in learning, but our first priority has got to be those students being successful," she said.
Others are concerned that schools are making students wait until their junior year to take some exams.
Postponing tests gives students time to grow accustomed to high school, said Patricia Sullivan, director of the Center of Education Policy, a group that researches the effects of the federal No Child Left Behind law and high school exit exams.
But taking the assessment course and test later gives students fewer opportunities to retake the test if they fail. Also, Sullivan said, "you give them more time to do other things, and, unfortunately, one of those things is drop out."
Gable countered, "The intention is that if the students are struggling in reading and also probably in writing ... we are looking at giving them preparation prior to giving them that course."
And some social studies experts say that offering U.S. government later in high school is best because students are closer to voting age and might be more ready to consider those topics, she said.
In the meantime, school districts are considering summer and after-school options, too. Middle school pupils in Baltimore will attend a two-week summer program, where their algebra skills will be assessed, DeStefano said. A proposed $40,000 summer HSA academy was cut from the Anne Arundel schools' operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The Maryland State Department of Education has developed online courses that students could use for remediation or support.
As Gable and others see it, educators need to be thinking about the exams as early as possible: "If you put it off too far and then you find that [students are] not performing, then you're holding off graduation."
New graduation requirements
Incoming ninth-graders must pass the following High School Assessment tests to graduate:
Algebra and data analysis
English (10th grade)
In addition, students must take the Maryland School Assessment in geometry in 10th grade as part of their graduation requirements, but they do not need to pass or meet a certain grade.
The following states require students to pass exit exams or are phasing them in by 2009: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.