Baltimore area residents show split on HSAs

The Baltimore Sun

State school board members heard testimony last night from a wide variety of residents in the Baltimore region who saw the High School Assessments as unfair to students not properly prepared by teachers or who applauded the tests as a way to give graduates a meaningful diploma.

Among a crowd of about 200 at Polytechnic Institute were teachers, parents, businesspeople, community leaders and school superintendents. Many of those who testified, including Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, supported a proposal to provide an alternative to students who failed the tests.

Rose Dennison, chairwoman of the parent advisory committee for Howard County schools, said her group supports the proposal that would allow students to do a project in their senior year, but she said the project should have to include the material students had handled poorly in the assessments.

Also, she called on the board to set strict standards and find a way to ensure consistency from school system to school system.

Last night's hearing was the last of five held around the state to elicit comments on the assessments before the Maryland State Board of Education makes a final decision on whether to link them to graduation for the Class of 2009. The vote, which could come Oct. 30, also will include the proposal for a senior project.

Comments from parents included a Baltimore County father, who said the board should keep the test standards because "I have witnessed the devastating effects of not having" high standards, and Michael Carter of Baltimore, who said the effect of having so many city students denied a diploma would be horrible.

Carter said he believes that only about a third of city students would get a diploma in 2009, and many of those would be from citywide high schools such as Poly and City College.

Bebe Verdery of the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, echoing some of Carter's concerns, said, "While school systems can point to some interventions for some children, thousands of students who need substantial additional help in passing the exams are not getting it. ... The Class of 2009 is in its junior year, and thousands have failed the tests. We question how the state board and school systems can possibly get all the alternative routes established and working fairly."

Maryland's school superintendents said they support continuing the tests with some flexibility for students but have some concerns about the time it takes to get the results -- nine weeks. Jacqueline C. Haas, superintendent in Harford County and president of the statewide group of school chiefs, said her colleagues would like to see a turnaround of two weeks or less. Members of the state board said recently that the time taken to grade the tests should be cut to about three weeks, beginning in 2009. In addition, Haas said, students should receive more details on specific portions of the test where they scored poorly so they know what to concentrate on.

Under current regulations, this year's high school juniors will have to pass four tests, in algebra, U.S. government, English and biology, to receive a diploma. The tests are considered to be at an early high school level and are taken when students finish the subject area in class.

Many of those speaking last night said they support the HSAs, including several teachers. Jenna Frye, a professor at Maryland Institute College of Art, said she finds many students entering her classroom unprepared in math and English. "Holding students to a basic standard isn't a punishment -- it is a right," she said.

Several businesspeople urged the board to keep the tests as a graduation requirement, saying they need employees who have graduated from high school with basic skills.

The state estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 students in the Class of 2009 are in jeopardy of not passing the tests in the next two school years, but critics of the test contend that estimate could be low because it assumes a certain dropout rate.

Statewide, 68 percent of 11th-graders have passed English, 77 percent have passed algebra, 71 percent have passed government, and 62 percent have passed biology. Students can retake the test numerous times.

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