At least 83 percent of Maryland's 54,628 public high school seniors have met the requirements on the state exams that are now mandatory for them to graduate, according to data released yesterday. But some districts, especially those with large minority populations, lag far behind.
While Baltimore has customarily had the state's lowest test scores, the percentage of seniors who have completed the requirements on the High School Assessments was slightly better in the city than in Prince George's County: 64.9 percent compared with 64.5 percent. The state's best results were in Carroll County, where 95.2 percent of seniors had the HSAs behind them.
"The parents have a lot to do with this," said Carroll Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. "The teachers do their job, but we need their help, and we have a great group of parents."
The HSAs are basic-skills tests administered at the end of courses in Algebra 1, sophomore English, biology and American government. To be able to graduate, students can pass all four exams or earn a minimum combined score. And since this summer, they have been allowed to complete projects in place of the tests they can't pass.
The data released yesterday are based on students' performance as of June, at the end of their junior year. Since then, the tests have been administered two more times. Seniors will have three more chances to pass before graduation and six more opportunities to submit projects.
In the area's other suburban school systems, the rate of seniors who have completed the requirements is 84.6 percent in Baltimore County, 91.8 percent in Anne Arundel County, and 92.9 percent in Harford and Howard counties.
State officials say many of the 9,059 seniors who are short of the requirements are close to meeting them. They are most concerned about students with disabilities and students learning English as a second language, many of whom lag behind. But they say the students who are not close to passing the tests often lack the credits they need to graduate anyway.
City schools chief Andres Alonso said at yesterday's state school board meeting that as much as a quarter of Baltimore seniors typically need a fifth year to complete high school. He expects that to be the case again this year, and he said the exams have forced schools to make standards higher.
Baltimore's neighborhood high schools tend to trail the city average. At Frederick Douglass High, for example, 36 of 132 seniors - or 27 percent - had met requirements by June. At Homeland Security Academy, it was 24 percent. Alonso said schools have individual plans for the students who are behind.
In Howard County, each of the 108 students who have not passed one or more exams has been assigned to a teacher to act as a "project manager." While the students are working on the projects, they are also continuing to take the tests in hopes of passing.
In several districts, the issue isn't just that students haven't passed exams; sometimes they still haven't taken them. Statewide, 759 students made it to their senior year without taking any of the four exams. Another 517 had taken only one.
In Baltimore, 11.5 percent of seniors have yet to take all tests, compared with 2.9 percent in Anne Arundel County, 3.5 percent in Baltimore County and 4.5 percent in Howard County. Part of the reason for the high rate in Baltimore is the order in which the city has had students take science courses. Until this year, biology was an 11th-grade class, meaning most students did not have the opportunity to take the biology exam until the end of their junior year.
Leslie Wilson, the state's testing director, said some districts on the Eastern Shore do not offer American government until 11th grade.
Among seniors who have taken all four exams, 90.2 percent have met the requirements.
Baltimore County's Eastern Technical High School has 100 percent of seniors meeting requirements, and the Carver Center and Towson High aren't far behind. About two-thirds of Dundalk, Milford Mill and Randallstown students met requirements.
"I'm encouraged and relieved to know that we're in the ballgame," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said. "The resources are available, the strategies are in place, in terms of intervention. ... We have a way of understanding how to approach the issue."
Montgomery County, the state's largest district, has 1,816 students, or 18 percent of the senior class, who have yet to meet requirements. Prince George's, the second-largest district, still has to get 2,599 seniors through. No. 3 Baltimore County has 1,081, and Baltimore City, fourth in terms of population, has 1,190.
At Baltimore County's Woodlawn High, about 55 percent of the Class of 2009 has met requirements, a significant improvement from last year but still a long way from 100 percent. Woodlawn has added extended-day and Saturday programs for struggling students, and Principal Brian Scriven said he's trying to ensure good instruction in every classroom.
"We're very optimistic that we're going to continue to move in the right direction," Scriven said. "We're going to keep getting it done here."
Baltimore Sun reporters Arin Gencer, David Kohn, Joe Burris, John-John Williams IV and Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.