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Delay in graduation test requirement is sought

The Baltimore Sun

Clarification: An article in yesterday's editions about the Maryland High School Assessments might have left the incorrect impression about when results of last spring's tests will be released. The results will be released to members of the state school board Tuesday morning, before board members might take a vote on whether to delay requiring that students pass the exams to earn high school diplomas, according to a state schools spokesman. The results of the tests will be released to the broader public later Tuesday.

Several members of the Maryland State Board of Education are expected to seek a delay in the requirement to pass the High School Assessments for graduation, a move that would derail a decade-long push by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to strengthen standards for getting a diploma.

Board member Blair Ewing said yesterday that he will propose a delay at the monthly board meeting next week because he doesn't believe that all students have been exposed to teaching that would adequately prepare them to pass the tests. He also is concerned that only recently have simplified tests been devised for special education students.

The tests are a graduation requirement for the first time for this year's high school seniors.

Ewing said his decision has been "influenced by a great many letters, e-mails and phone calls by educators and parents who tell us the preparation for the HSA, particularly for special education and English language learners and disadvantaged students, has not been adequate. ... It seems we have so much dismay that we ought to take our time and get it right."

Ewing, who has the backing of the state's largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County, said he believes at least four board members will vote for delay.

He is unsure whether he will be able to come up with votes from as many as six. It would take that many to pass his proposal, given that one member of the 12-member board is expected to be absent.

An emotional debate about the requirement continues around the state, even as thousands of seniors who haven't passed the tests in English, algebra, American government and biology are studying to retake them or do makeup work. Those who have failed tests are allowed to complete projects instead.

Grasmick and other proponents of the assessments say that thousands of students graduate each year without a basic education. Setting at least minimum standards, they argue, will mean a better education for African-American, special education and Latino students. Opponents say some students will be denied a diploma because they were not taught by qualified teachers, were struggling to learn English as a second language or were so discouraged by the obstacles that they gave up.

Ewing is a former member of the Montgomery County school board, which recently passed a resolution saying it believes the requirements are too complex and should be delayed at least a year. The county superintendent, Jerry D. Weast, is expected to speak for the delay at the state board meeting on Tuesday.

But Weast appears to be alone among the state's superintendents, who have generally supported imposing the standards.

"The notion that it is worse to hold them back, rather than pushing them through unprepared, is criminal," said Andres Alonso, Baltimore's chief executive officer. Alonso said he has more than 1,000 students who haven't passed all four tests or will need to try to complete projects to graduate. But, he said, they are only a portion of the student population that needs to catch up. Thousands of other students, he said, have dropped out or are years behind.

Alonso is supported by a number of African-American education leaders.

"People need to stop using minority students as a justification for removing HSA as a graduation requirement. It's almost as if they're accepting that it is impossible for 'these' students to meet the standard, so let's eliminate the standard and pass them on anyway. That's just wrong," Barbara Desmon, a Baltimore County resident and chairman of a state minority student achievement initiative, said in an e-mail.

As the board meeting nears, some people are also criticizing Grasmick's office for limiting the public comment period before the vote. Kate Walsh, a school board member, said she has received numerous letters from people who wanted to comment but were shut out because there are only 20 slots. She has asked that the comment period be expanded.

"I am willing to sit there all day and all night if I have to," she said. "It's my job to listen to what the public has to say on this issue."

School board members have been getting letters and e-mails for the past several weeks. In some e-mails, teachers and parents have begged the board to delay the standards.

The ACLU and the Maryland Disabilities Law Center have opposed linking the HSAs and getting a diploma, although they are not opposed to the tests. The two organizations said in a letter to the board this week: "Denying a diploma to students who have stayed in school for 12 years and done what was asked of them by adults will make it vastly more difficult for those young people to find jobs, attend community college or make a living."

If the board does delay the HSAs, the letter said, it must have a plan that will give all students access to the same good instruction and curriculum. Parents of special education students across the state appear to be divided. Speaking on their behalf, the law center says it does not want the standard dropped or delayed solely for special education students, who, they argue, are finally being offered a regular curriculum.

Other debates around the issue have also been erupting in recent weeks. The Maryland Education Coalition, which includes the teachers union, the ACLU, Advocates for Children and Youth and others, complained that the state has been late in releasing the results of last spring's testing. Last year, results were released in August, indicating that 2,000 to 3,000 members of the Class of 2009 were at risk of not graduating. The group requested data be released no later than last Monday, but the state has yet to reveal passing rates for each school and county.

Individual results were handed out this summer, which means the students and their schools know where they stand. The state has said it wanted to await verification from the schools to ensure the board and the public would be getting accurate data on how many students in the Class of 2009 are in danger of not graduating.

State officials have said the data will not be released until Tuesday, likely after the board has already voted. Board members said yesterday that they have yet to be shown the data.


* This year's seniors must pass tests in algebra I, American government, English II and biology or meet a certain combined score.

* Students who fail can complete projects instead. A student who had the lowest scores on all four tests might have to do 28 projects.

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