As board weighs keeping exam as condition of graduation, Grasmick offers alternative

The Baltimore Sun

At age 16, Portia Dyson is driven -- a good student who works in a research laboratory at the University of Maryland and hopes to go to college to study science and nursing.

Just one thing stands in her way: She can't pass Maryland's High School Assessments.

Portia, who attends the city's new medical arts high school, has failed three of the four state exams required to graduate -- apparently because of test anxiety.

Not only is her diploma in jeopardy, she worries that her junior and senior years will be consumed by remedial classes that crowd out more rigorous courses as well as the electives she wants to take in the medical field.

"They don't realize how much this is messing up my future," she said of the state officials who created the tests.

The state school board is considering whether to keep its requirement that all Maryland high school students, starting with the Class of 2009, pass the exams in English, algebra, biology and American government as a condition of graduation.

The board is holding one of several public hearings on the matter tonight at Baltimore's Poly-Western high school complex at 7 p.m.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is proposing that students who fail the tests twice be allowed to do a senior project instead. Officials say the alternative is aimed at the small percentage of students who have fulfilled all other requirements for graduation but who fail the state tests because of anxiety or other problems.

"This is exactly the kind of student who would be benefiting" if Grasmick's proposal is approved, said Ronald A. Peiffer, deputy state school superintendent.

But that proposal won't get a vote before next month, so school systems can't tell students like Portia whether there will be an alternative to passing the tests.

"This was devastating to her," said Susan G. Dorsey, a nurse and scientist at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, where Portia worked this summer as part of a School of Medicine-sponsored program to introduce city students to careers in science. "I don't think you will find a more highly motivated, goal-driven city high school student."

Portia studied chronic pain. She analyzed tissue samples from mice and looked at changes in proteins.

When Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who had urged the medical school to mentor city students, walked through the lab, Dorsey said she pointed out Portia as a star of the program.

"She was really top-notch," Dorsey said. Not only did she "pick up and grasp the underpinnings of the experiment," Dorsey said, she also "has great hands" for working in the lab and got along well with other people.

"We found her delightful. She had meticulous attention to detail," Dorsey said.

The experience in the laboratory, Portia said, changed her career goals. She realized she could become a nurse and a scientist and now has that goal in mind.

Dorsey was so impressed that she has applied for a grant to hire Portia to work part time during the school year and hopes to mentor her as she gets her college education. "She wants to continue on to become a Ph.D. We will do everything we can to help her do that, but it sounds like this is a stumbling block."

Last school year, Portia said, she was on the honor roll at the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts High School for three quarters and has passed all her courses. "I stressed more about the [state] tests in the fourth quarter than I did about my grades," she said.

A school system spokeswoman confirmed that Portia is a B student.

Portia said that though she understands the material, she has always had trouble with tests. She does well enough on her homework and classwork, she said, to maintain a decent average.

Peiffer said that when state officials designed the tests, they knew there would be students like Portia. So they created a "comparable assessment" specifically for students with test anxiety that is being piloted in several school systems this year. If that doesn't work well, Peiffer said, they will allow students to do the senior project if the state school board adopts the change.

For the moment, though, students like Portia are in a bind, without a clear path to graduation because no alternative is yet in place.

Her mother, La'Donna Dyson, said Portia will be reassigned to remedial classes beginning in the second semester, mostly to retake courses she has already passed. In October and January, she can retake the tests she has failed, but the results won't be available to her until well into the second semester.

So if she passes algebra on the third try -- and she might because she missed the passing score by only 9 points -- she won't know until after she has begun a remedial algebra class.

"This is a no-win situation," Dyson said. "It kicks you out of your career."

Peiffer said most school systems are offering other remedial options besides course work. By January, he believes, school systems should be able to counsel students about what courses to take and whether they can do a senior project. What the projects might consist of and how they would be structured have not been worked out.

Dyson is far from complacent about her daughter's situation. The mother of seven, who works 36 hours a week and attends community college, says she will fight for her daughter. She is incredulous that a good student could be denied a diploma.

Because it takes many months to get the tests graded, Portia didn't find out until last week that she had failed all three tests she took in May. The news was hard to hear.

Her mother found her red-eyed. "I failed all three. I have to start over," she told Dyson.

Dyson was in the principal's office at 7:30 a.m. the next school day. She said she still has no assurances that Portia will be able to get enough high school credits to graduate, and she has not heard much about the senior project.

"I don't care if I have to go to the president. This is not going to stand in the way of her graduating," Dyson said.

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