After nearly four hours of debate yesterday about whether to make passing four high school exams a condition of graduation in 2009, the Maryland State Board of Education still appeared deeply divided on what to do.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick presented a variety of options to the state school board, from phasing in the tests one at a time, to allowing the option of senior projects, to delaying the requirement for all students.
While Grasmick has been an enthusiastic proponent of the tests during her many years as superintendent, it is not clear whether the school board will keep the tests as a graduation requirement for the Class of 2009.
"I think everyone is still deliberating," said school board President Dunbar Brooks during an interview. He said a lot of questions remain, including details about the senior project.
Brooks said he is unsure whether the board would be ready to take a final vote at its next meeting Oct. 30. "We will make a decision this year. I am not going to shortcut the process."
At the heart of the vote is whether the state will decide to possibly deny hundreds or even thousands of diplomas to students - many of them minorities - to ensure that graduates are competent in algebra, English, American government and biology.
In the wide-ranging debate, board members appeared to focus on several issues, including whether students in every school system have had enough extra tutoring and academic support and whether a senior project option would work.
After pressure from parents, teachers and local school board members, Grasmick proposed last month an alternative senior project for those students who had failed the tests twice. Only students who had were on track to fulfill all requirements for graduation would be allowed the option.
Officials said yesterday that the state would set the standards for the project, but local systems would be responsible for the details. A local board would review each project.
State officials would review 10 percent of the projects to ensure they were up to standards.
Several board members worried that the project would be seen as a loophole even if the state set high standards.
"I think it will lead to some doubts on the part of the public," said board member Blair G. Ewing.
Karabelle A.L. Pizzigati, another board member, echoed that concern when she said she doesn't want the senior project to become a "catch-all" for all the students who can't pass the exams.
The state school board is under pressure from local superintendents and educators to quickly decide on graduation requirements so that today's juniors and their parents know what the rules will be.
Among their choices:
Delay the requirement for all students. Grasmick argued against this option, saying that it would likely mean high school students would be less motivated to take the tests.
Phase in the requirements test by test. This would allow local school systems more time to improve teaching for each test.
Phase in the requirement for some groups of students, including those in special education, those learning English and those with mild disabilities.
Some special education advocates have asked the state not to delay the requirement for their children because the tests have forced public schools to offer those students the standard curriculum. The result, they argue, has meant that special education students are learning more.
Allow students who fail exams twice to do a senior project.
Keep the requirement as it is without permitting any senior project.
Get rid of the requirement but keep the exams. Three of the four exams are required under No Child Left Behind, but they don't have to be linked to graduation.
That the test requirements will affect poor and minority students more than white students seems accepted, but minority members of the board are divided over whether the requirement would improve education for blacks and Latinos.
A few members of the board, including Rosa M. Garcia, who was recently appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, expressed many concerns about the tests, particularly its effect on Latino and African-American boys, who have some of the highest exam-failure rates.
But Brooks apparently supports the exams. He said the tests have exposed a significant gap in achievement between white and African-American students, and that they will force a new look at how to close that gap. He said the tests have pulled back the veil and exposed the differences.
"My question is: Why can't a junior pass a ninth-grade test? ... We are at a kind of precipice," he said. "Where do we go? Do we really want to make a difference?"