Backing away from her insistence that students pass four state tests to graduate, Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday that those who repeatedly fail the exams should be allowed to do a senior project instead.
Grasmick made the proposal as state officials acknowledged that at least 2,000 to 3,000 students in the Class of 2009 are in jeopardy of not getting a diploma because of their poor performance on the state's High School Assessments.
"It is our belief that we should have an alternative for our students," Grasmick told the state school board at its meeting yesterday. But she reiterated her belief in the testing overall. "I think the HSAs provide us with a sense of transparency so students are not lost in the shadows. They speak most importantly to equity and the quality of instruction."
Her proposal, if accepted, would be a major shift in policy. After telling 66,000 students in the Class of 2009 for at least five years that they will have to pass state tests in algebra, English, American government and biology as a condition of graduation, the state would be offering an alternative.
Pressure from school boards, parents and state legislators to weaken the graduation requirement has been building. And yesterday, the state released its first look at the pass rate of today's 11th-graders. Statewide, only 68 percent of students have passed the English exam. In Baltimore, only 41 percent have passed.
On the other tests, the percentage of students in the Class of 2009 who have already passed algebra is 77 percent, government is 71 percent and biology is 62 percent. Students who have not passed might not have taken the tests yet or might have failed. They will have at least eight more chances to try over the next two years.
The criteria for the senior project would be worked out in the next year, but Grasmick said students would have to do "a rigorous and substantive project to reflect mastery of the material."
How extensive the project would be would depend on how well the student did on the four tests. If a student failed to pass one or two tests, the project would be less involved than if the student failed four tests.
"We are talking about rigor, not book reports," Grasmick said. The project would not be done overnight or in a week, she said, but over the course of the senior year.
Andres Alonso, the new chief executive officer of the Baltimore City schools, welcomed the announcement, saying that the option of a senior project would be "tremendously helpful" for students who not adequately prepared to take the tests and for students who don't test well.
"To the extent that you have many students who do not do well on tests but may be meeting certain standards, I think it's a fair way of measuring whether they may be ready to move on or not," Alonso said.
But some education advocates said the data presented by the state were so scant and confused that it was difficult to assess the proposal.
For the first time since the test was administered seven years ago, the state decided not to release any data on the number of students who passed the test in individual counties or schools. In part, state officials said, they wanted to concentrate on trying to sift the data to find out what percentage of the Class of 2009 has passed the tests so far as opposed to test-takers in all grades.
All local school district data, state officials said, would be released by the districts, a significant departure from the way test results have been released since the mid-1990s.
Some county superintendents, officials said, had argued that the state didn't have enough details on individual students and shouldn't release scores.
In a confidential memo written last week to his school board members, Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said the state's data are "so flawed as to be largely useless as a measure of student performance for the Class of 2009."
After some superintendents put pressure on the state, officials decided yesterday not to release countywide results, though they had earlier promised to do so. Some districts, particularly those whose students have done well, quickly released data, while others were reluctant.
Of all students currently enrolled in 11th grade, 77.3 percent have passed the algebra test. If officials eliminate the students they believe will drop out before graduation day, the state estimates that about 92 percent of the class has passed the test.
But the numbers for other subjects are lower and would still result in thousands of students - largely African-American and poor - being denied a diploma. And many parents and legislators have been uneasy with the idea of thousands of minorities being denied a chance to move ahead, as has happened in some other states that instituted the exams.
Bebe Verdery, education director at the Maryland ACLU, argued that the Class of 2009 has not had the benefit of the beefed-up level of state funding under the Thornton law that is providing students with better teaching and additional staff. "If we expect them to meet standards, it is incumbent on the adults to provide resources and interventions to get them where they need to be," she said.
Grasmick's new plan, Verdery said, "is a step in the right direction and an acknowledgment that not all children can show their knowledge of a subject on a high-stakes exam. I think it will affect a relatively low number of students, those who hang in there until 12th grade in hopes of getting a diploma."
What she worries about most, she said, are "the students who give up during high school thinking they won't make it."
Patterson High School Principal Laura D'Anna, who has spent years preparing her students for the 2009 deadline, said Grasmick's proposal showcases what has become a no-win situation for school officials.
Stick to the passing requirement, she said, and the number of graduates will drop. But tell students they don't have to pass, and they won't take the exams seriously. D'Anna worries that changing the requirements now will erode progress made in recent years and create the impression that the administration was just "bluffing" when it decided to tighten standards.
"We've been gaining momentum, not just at Patterson, but at all schools. When this became a requirement, the students began taking it seriously," she said. "If the children don't think it matters, you know what will happen."
John Deasy, superintendent in Prince George's County, told the board that it is fine to change the vehicle that measures a student's knowledge, but it shouldn't lower standards.
"The level of rigor [of the proposed senior project] needs to be monitored by the state. I believe this deeply," he said. Deasy said he would not allow just one person, such a student's teacher or principal, to judge the quality of the project. He said the number of students passing the test in his county has risen quickly in the past year and he would expect only several hundred students to need to do the senior project.
Some board members expressed concern about Grasmick's proposal. "I don't believe I have enough details to be comfortable with this plan," said Rosa M. Garcia, a new member from suburban Washington. She said she is concerned that "if we don't do this responsibly, we will add to the dropout rate in my community, the Latino community."
Her worry was highlighted by some of the data county school systems released yesterday.
In Anne Arundel County, where students overall have done relatively well, minorities still lagged far behind. Only half of African-American students and 54 percent of Hispanic students passed the algebra test, compared with 79 percent of white students. In English, barely six out of 10 black high-schoolers passed the state test, compared with 81 percent of their white peers.
Sun reporters Rona Kobell, Sara Neufeld and Ruma Kumar contributed to this article.