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City schools improve on exams

The Baltimore Sun

Many more Baltimore students passed the state graduation exams in 2008, helping to nearly double the number of city high schools that met academic performance targets this year, according to data released yesterday that showed improvements in a variety of measures.

But nearly 1,100 high school seniors - more than a quarter of those in the city - face enormous hurdles if they are to graduate in the spring, assuming the requirement holds that they must earn a minimum score or complete projects. The state school board is expected today to consider whether to delay that requirement. Exam results for individual schools are to be released today.

In Baltimore, 678 seniors haven't passed any of the four exams, given in English, algebra, biology and American government, and 403 have passed only one.

Still, city schools chief Andres Alonso supports state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who wants to keep the requirement this year, even if it means denying diplomas to hundreds of students. He says it's necessary to keep the pressure on students to work hard, and he's willing to keep them in high school until they're prepared to graduate.

"I don't want to give out diplomas that are a cruel hoax," Grasmick said yesterday, noting that High School Assessments measure only a rudimentary level of proficiency. "This is not college-ready or work-ready," she said. "It's foundational."

Results on the English and algebra assessments are also used to judge a school's performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and the number of city high schools that made "adequate yearly progress" this year nearly doubled, from 11 to 21. Eighteen did not meet the target.

Several state school board members appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley are concerned that some students, particularly those who are poor, disabled or learning English as a second language, have not been given adequate preparation to pass the four tests. It is unclear whether they will have the support to secure a delay; observers expect a vote will be close.

Grasmick and O'Malley joined city school officials yesterday in marking several advances in Baltimore's high schools. At the refurbished Federal Hill building that houses Digital Harbor and National Academy Foundation high schools, officials gathered over lunch prepared by National Academy Foundation culinary students.

Alonso announced that Baltimore's graduation rate improved last spring to 62.6 percent from 60.1 percent the year before. He said that's still unacceptably low, but his focus is on improvement.

The city's high schools saw their enrollment increase by 1,250 students, or more than 5 percent, this fall, the first increase in at least five years. That means that more parents are choosing to send their children to Baltimore public schools and that fewer students are dropping out. Alonso said he's particularly proud of the increased number of sophomores, since the majority of dropouts occur after freshman year. The number of sophomores increased from 5,871 last year to 6,106 this year. Nonetheless, more than 2,000 had transferred or dropped out after freshman year.

On the High School Assessments, the number of exams passed - collectively by seniors and underclassmen - is up from 8,313 two years ago and 10,433 last year to 12,781 this year. As the number of exams taken increased, the pass rate in algebra was 32 percent, 37 percent in English, 45 percent in biology, and 53 percent in government.

Among special education students in the city, the pass rates were in the single digits in every subject except government, where it was 16 percent. But advocates for students with disabilities have insisted that they not be held to a lesser standard, saying that some have access to a rigorous curriculum for the first time as schools try to prepare them for the tests.

The system did not release pass rates specifically for seniors, but the state is expected to do so today. If the graduation requirement holds, seniors will have another three chances to pass the exams and six more opportunities to submit projects. The city has 1,232 students working on 2,397 projects.

At the news conference where the statistics were released, O'Malley challenged his audience, which included principals, central office administrators and education advocates, to find another big city whose elementary schools have improved as much as Baltimore's.

He noted that the number of city high schools making "adequate yearly progress" has quadrupled since 2003, when five high schools met the target. "That's a huge accomplishment," he said.

Officials had a variety of explanations for the improvement, which has been building over time. Perhaps the simplest is that students are trying harder now that they expect the exams to carry consequences.

Last academic year, the city schools obtained state money to offer additional tutoring to students struggling to pass the tests. To lure them to the sessions, which included peer tutoring, Alonso offered to pay up to $110 to students who improved their performance, prompting public outrage.

According to data to be presented at a city school board meeting tonight, the incentives helped: 50 percent of the students who participated in the extra tutoring passed the government test, compared with 21 percent of those who did not attend the sessions. In algebra, 33 percent of participants passed, compared with 14 percent of non-participants.

The system paid $25 to 187 students, $60 to 143 students, and $110 to 209 students. Alonso said he'd like to offer more money in the future, even though most students said it didn't influence their decision to attend the tutoring.

Tonight's board presentation, posted on the school board's Web site, also examines college readiness. The number of city schools offering Advanced Placement courses, in which students can earn college credit if they pass exams at the end, is up to 15, from eight in 2005. Last school year, the city's enrollment in AP courses was 1,305, and the system administered 1,183 AP exams. But only 288 of the exams yielded passing scores.

BY THE NUMBERS

Officials released several key measures of city high schools:

* The graduation rate rose from 60.1 percent to 62.6 percent

* High schools making "adequate yearly progress" under a federal law nearly doubled from 11 to 21. Yet 18 did not hit the target.

* The number of successful attempts to pass the high school assessment tests in 2008 was up 2,348 over the year before.

* Enrollment grew by 1,250 students, an increase of more than 5 percent.

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