An Opinion * Commentary article Friday described Maryland's requirement that students pass four High School Assessment tests as "a consequence of the No Child Left Behind law." That federal law does not require that students pass tests to graduate from high school.
Maryland laws designed to improve student performance could encourage some teenagers to drop out of high school.
I was brought to this realization recently when one of my usually upbeat 10th-graders came crying into my office after being handed a notice stating that she had failed a recent administration of the High School Assessment (HSA) test. Thinking she had done well on the high-stakes test, she was devastated to find she had failed the biology test by a few points.
She, like so many other 10th-graders across Maryland, would need to retake the test.
This year's 10th-graders will be the first class required to pass each of four HSAs, or earn a combined minimum passing score, in order to receive a diploma in Maryland. Previously, students were required only to sit for the tests. But what happens to the students who don't pass?
As the law stands, students who cannot pass all of the required HSAs by the time they are due to graduate will receive certificates of completion rather than diplomas. The difference between these two documents is striking.
Students who receive diplomas are, of course, eligible to enter college and then go on to pursue any career path of their choosing. On the other hand, certificates of completion have been reserved for severely disabled special-education students: those who attend high school classes for four years but are functionally incapable of completing high school-level coursework. A student with only a certificate of completion cannot earn a GED, cannot earn a diploma, cannot enroll at a four-year college after graduation and cannot join the military.
We are creating a system where it makes more sense for students who cannot pass a battery of tests to drop out - so that they might later earn a GED and proceed to further education - than it does for them to complete their four years of high school.
As citizens of Maryland, we should all be concerned about what these policies, a consequence of the No Child Left Behind law, mean for the lives of our children and our communities. The latest data available from the Maryland State Department of Education show that in 2006, only 60.1 percent of Maryland's high school students passed the English HSA, 67.7 percent passed the biology test, 74.2 percent passed in government and 66.6 percent passed in algebra.
These numbers leave many students feeling discouraged as they are told they need to retake tests again and again. Over the course of the next two years, as the Class of 2009 prepares for graduation, we will see the number of students needing to retake tests multiple times jump sharply, and when some of those students do not succeed, it is likely that they will choose to drop out rather than accept a certificate of completion. Although some of them will return to school or complete their GEDs, most will not.
I am not suggesting that students shouldn't have a basic understanding of core subject matter in order to graduate from a Maryland high school, or that we shouldn't hold schools accountable for helping students succeed. However, it is unrealistic to believe that all students' aptitudes can be adequately measured by standardized tests, and it is unfair to provide those students who are unsuccessful with a document that effectively bars or discourages them from opportunities for well-paid employment and further education.
How will the creation of an even larger disenfranchised underclass help our state to grow in a positive direction?
We need to rethink our laws regarding graduation requirements now, before the first class required to pass these tests is ready to walk across the stage. Without a change in legislation, we will certainly see a rise in dropouts, leading to higher rates of unemployment and crime. Our children deserve access to a more optimistic future.
Callandra S. Cook is head of the English department at Baltimore's Doris M. Johnson High School. Her e-mail is email@example.com.