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Struggling toward graduation

The Baltimore Sun

Brittany Green and Ashley Lane have been told since ninth grade that theirs was the first class that would have to pass four statewide exams to graduate. Their high school experience, from the classes they took to the way they viewed their senior year, has been shaped by the tougher standards.

Now seniors, the two students have come face to face with the reality of Maryland's High School Assessments policy, one that continues to be debated. Despite the addition of an alternative path to a diploma that allows students to complete projects instead of passing the tests, some members of the state school board remain concerned about obstacles for the Class of 2009. On Tuesday, the board is expected to consider whether to delay the requirement.

Green, a tall 18-year-old senior at Baltimore's Northwestern High School, failed all four exams in biology, American government, English II and Algebra I. She now must complete 12 projects in order to graduate. Lane, 17, is perhaps more average for the school. She has also failed tests and has five projects. "I know I can do it, but it is so much," Lane said.

For the two young women and most of their classmates, senior year is full of angst and work. They attend a high school where 165 students, a majority of the senior class, need to complete projects to graduate.

Statewide, Northwestern is far from typical. The majority of the students in the state, about 88 percent, have passed all the tests and will have no roadblocks to graduation.

And many Maryland high schools likely will have a only a couple of dozen or so students who need extra help to get a diploma.

Green and Lane are representative of those who are struggling in a school where administrators and teachers will have a daunting task in the next six months. Can the principal, who is new to the school this year, ever hope to get all these students onto the graduation stage in June?

"I am going to work day and night to make sure that happens," said Jason Hartling, principal of Northwestern, a school with about 1,000 students.

But he describes the task as a "massive" one.

Hartling and his staff went through every senior's transcript last summer. They called them in one by one to develop a strategy. Of the 260 seniors who looked as if they could get enough credits to graduate and were attending school regularly, 165 hadn't met the graduation requirement by either passing all four tests or attaining a 1,602 combined score. Of those, Hartling expects about 25 students to be able to pass the tests.

The remaining 140 students fall into a couple of categories, he said, but about a quarter need to do five projects or more, with the average about three per student. With all those projects to complete, Hartling decided to put the students who were far behind into classes where they could work on their projects.

Each day, Lane and Green spend an hour and a half in class working on a project. Green has completed two of the 12 projects and is nearly done with a third. She also retook tests this month, and she will take the tests once more in January. "I am hoping and praying," she said.

But she knows her best chance is to amass points for each project, which will be added to her scores on the exams. That way she can make up the difference and graduate. "School is stressing me out," said Green, who hopes to go to fashion design school.

Lane has completed three of her five projects, after about 15 hours of work on each one. However, they haven't been judged by a panel of Baltimore City graders yet, so she doesn't know whether they will be deemed good enough. "[They're] making the projects so hard to do. It is so hard to graduate. It is not fair," Lane said.

But that isn't the only hurdle for Green and Lane. They also have to make up credits, so each is taking a full course load during the day and attending night school.

Lane said she is trying to make up for her earlier high school mistakes. She said her attendance was poor in 10th grade, in part because of the deaths of family members.

In the 11th grade, she had trouble again, but this year she is focusing and has been making 90s in nearly all of her classes, she said. The projects are challenging for her, particularly the one in biology, she said, but not impossible.

Lane's advice to the board: lower the passing score or require just the English and the algebra tests. Those two subjects, she said, are the ones she "needs for life."

The work to pass the HSA requirements started several years ago. Green passed the Algebra I course in tenth grade but failed the test. She had to take the class again, but she still failed the test.

More recently, the school system, Hartling said, has let a student who passed the course move on to the next math class while continuing to study to pass the test. Students with the lowest scores are put in a class designed to help them master the material. For students who don't have as many projects to do, after-school help is available for them to work on projects.

Each one of the department heads in the building and a small cadre of experienced teachers are working with the students who face the greatest challenge.

"Ultimately, our kids can do it," Hartling said. "What I worry about the most is that the kids are going to gamble that they won't have to do it."

Even with hundreds of city school students at risk of failing to graduate, school chief Andres Alonso said he supports the requirements and will give students who don't manage to graduate a fifth year of high school.

Green's response: "I am not going to come back. I am already a year behind."

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