Some fear dilution of testing mandate

The Baltimore Sun

A day after state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed giving students an alternative to passing high school graduation tests, educators and business leaders expressed concern that her plan would significantly water down the testing requirement.

"How rigorous is this alternative route going to be? And how are these kids going to perform when they get out of school?" said Terrylynn Tirell, education director at Advocates for Children and Youth.

Some teachers, principals and students said that they support Grasmick's idea and that struggling students should get a second chance.

"If you look at the numbers of those who are at risk of not getting a diploma, it's scary. Providing those students with a viable option makes sense," said Aaron Plymouth, a retired reading specialist and immediate past president of Randallstown High School's PTSA.

Under the current rules, beginning with the Class of 2009, students in Maryland will have to pass High School Assessments in biology, algebra, American government and English to graduate.

Test data released this week showed that up to 3,000 students are in danger of not getting diplomas, and Grasmick has proposed allowing those who repeatedly fail the tests to do a senior project instead.

The details of how the senior project would be administered would be worked out by a task force over the next year if the state school board adopts Grasmick's plan.

The project would have to be substantial, done over the course of a year and approved by teachers and school administrators, she said.

It is inherent in Grasmick's plan, critics said, that there could be different standards for the projects in different schools and districts, and that the scoring would be less objective than for a test.

"One thing that is clear is that it is going to be subjective school to school and district to district," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which has long argued against making passing the tests a graduation requirement. He said school accountability would go out the window if projects were allowed because students wouldn't take the test seriously.

Outside Woodlawn High School yesterday, some students liked the idea of having the option of completing a senior project instead of taking the tests.

Dana Rideout, a 14-year-old ninth-grader, said she passed the Algebra I test last year and considered it relatively easy. But she would still rather do a project than take a test.

"With a test, you either get it wrong or you get it right, and you have to count on the teacher being able to cover everything that's going to be on the test," she said. "But with a project, you put yourself into it and have a better opportunity to express what you know."

Diamonte Kess, also a ninth-grader at Woodlawn, said he would like it if students could choose whether to take the exam or prepare a project.

"It's their grade, so it should be their choice," said Diamonte, who added that he would use his knowledge of preparing PowerPoint presentations, with charts and illustrations, for such a project.

Diamonte and Dana described themselves as average students who strive for A's and B's. They said that whether or not a test or a project is used to determine who graduates, it is more important that students not be defined by one score or grade.

"Just because you can't pass a test doesn't mean you don't want to learn," Dana said. "They shouldn't judge kids on one test."

About half of the states require students to pass high school tests to graduate, and nearly all have alternatives for students who repeatedly fail, said Michael Cohen at Achieve, a nonprofit that works to help states set test standards.

In New Jersey, he said, an alternative is used widely in districts with high poverty and has weakened the standards.

The Massachusetts alternative is much more finely tuned and is used in fewer cases. If a student's grades and work at school are comparable to the work of peers who have passed the tests, the requirement may be waived, Cohen said.

"It is not easy on a statewide basis to create projects locally that are of consistent rigor and are scored consistently. ... I think they have to be careful about how they do this or it will become a big loophole," he said.

Cohen said Achieve has studied Maryland's high school assessments in English and algebra and that as in most states, they are designed to test eighth and nine grade level skills.

"Right now, we are measuring English II not English IV. We are measuring Algebra I, not Algebra II. It is a low standard," said June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. "What we would hope is that we stay the course on the assessments.," she said. Any alternative "needs to be considered very carefully."

With few details about how the senior project would work, many people said they found it hard to say whether they like the Grasmick proposal.

"The devil really is in the details." said JoAnn C. Murphy, president of the Baltimore County school board. "Conceptually, anything that offers options for kids strikes me as a good idea. But on the other hand, I'm concerned that we keep on message that we expect kids to do their best."

The alternative was more warmly welcomed by the Maryland State Teachers Association, which says students should be measured by more than four tests.

"This appears to address the students who clearly should be graduating but haven't done well on the test," said Daniel Kaufman, an association spokesman.

His organization and other education advocates around the state are still deeply concerned, however, about what will happen to low-income and minority students who don't pass the tests and might become so discouraged that they drop out of high school. The emphasis, they said, should continue to be on helping those students reach a higher standard.

Pat Ferguson, head of the Baltimore County NAACP chapter, said that at first blush she likes the idea of giving students another way to demonstrate their mastery. But she worries, she said, that unless the option is crafted in a sophisticated way, it won't help ensure that teens are prepared to leave high school.

"We still have concerns that students are not being able to pass the HSAs," she said. "Yes, they're going to be able to get a diploma, but why weren't they able to pass the HSA?"

At Doris M. Johnson High School in Baltimore, Principal Tricia Rock said a project option would benefit her students.

Rock said students are in a test-preparation frame of mind and that she doesn't want to lose their momentum.

But given some students' deficiencies when they enter high school, and given the test anxiety some experience, it is good to have another option, she said.

"I think that would make such a big difference," Rock said.

Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

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