Maryland's state school board made a final decision yesterday to hold firm and require this year's high school seniors to pass four subject tests to graduate in June, although it left open the possibility of exemptions for special education students and those learning English.
The decision leaves 9,059 students across the state - or about 17 percent of the Class of 2009 - at risk of not getting a diploma, according to data released yesterday.
Only 70 percent of African-Americans statewide and 50 percent of special education students have met the requirements. But the group most likely to be barred from graduation are immigrants who are learning English. Many have not yet taken all the tests, and only 15 percent have met the requirements.
A motion to delay the requirement failed, 7-4, when board members voted after five hours of discussion and emotional pleas. Despite the numbers of students who will struggle, Baltimore's schools chief Andres Alonso urged the board to not back down. To do so would continue "a system that creates an urban underclass for African-American and Latino children," he said.
State education officials contend that few students who work hard, come to school and do their homework will be denied diplomas. They expect additional students to pass the tests and others to complete projects that allow them to make up for failing scores.
Maryland is the 26th state to link graduation to high-stakes tests. Nearly three-fourths of students across the nation now have to pass some tests. But the trend doesn't appear to be spreading. In Pennsylvania, the governor and legislature agreed last spring to delay mandatory graduation exams for a year. Nationally, some educators have begun to argue that performance on exams should be a factor in a student's GPA or a significant part of their grade in the subject being tested.
The school board has taken many votes on the High School Assessments since 1993 when the tests were first developed, but yesterday was considered the board's last chance to reverse course and drop or delay the requirement.
To address concern over students who have yet to meet the requirements, state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick said she would lay out a plan to allow individual students to appeal to the board if they fail. In particular, Grasmick said, the state must be sure that all students have been offered extra help. The appeals process would be devised by the board's next meeting, in December.
Statistics show that 4,000 seniors around the state have not yet taken one or more of the tests because they had not taken the courses in English, biology, American government and Algebra I. If they don't take the exams until April, they will not have the results until May, just a few weeks before graduation. That would leave those students with little chance to get extra help to pass the tests.
The state could decide to offer hundreds of students exemptions under the appeals process. However, Grasmick called it "an appeals process for extraordinary circumstances" and not a major loophole for all those who failed. She said a legitimate reason for an appeal would be that "the student has not had the opportunity to take the course until senior year."
The majority of seniors taking the courses and tests for the first time are those who are taking longer to get through the high school curriculum because they have a language barrier or have special needs.
Many of the English learners are in Montgomery County, whose superintendent, Jerry Weast, helped lead the push to reconsider making the tests mandatory this year. After the motion to delay failed, board member Kate Walsh introduced a motion to delay making the tests a graduation requirement for special education and students who are learning English.
But the board decided to discuss that issue at its December meeting.
School board member Dunbar Brooks argued vehemently for the tests, saying that those who proposed a delay were being "disingenuous and dishonest" because they really wanted to get rid of them altogether. Delaying the requirements just continues a system that leaves young blacks unprepared for jobs when they graduate and keeps the same social inequities that have existed for decades, he said.
Several other educators and board members argued that the HSA requirement would raise the level of teaching for minority students who have previously been written off. The diploma, they said, should mean something.
Others, including teachers, parents and representatives from Montgomery County, which has a large number of Latino students, said they have no objection to the requirements but have concerns about the Class of 2009. A new, simplified version of the test for special education students has only recently been available. Also added this year were the make-up projects, known collectively as the Bridge Plan. The average student who has failed the tests has about five projects to do to meet the requirements.
Weast said he has no disagreement about the need for a good system of accountability, but he does not believe the HSAs are the best measure. He said the tests are not difficult enough to pass and that the state might consider giving the ACT, a national standardized test taken by students who are applying for college.
Opponents from Montgomery County said the HSA tests were not a perfect measure of what students know and would unfairly penalize students who were from immigrant families or minorities who had not been exposed to good teaching.
The student board member, Derek Wu, a senior from Bennett High School in Wicomico County, who said he had polled student representatives on county school boards across the state, voted for the delay, saying students believed there were several problems with the test that needed to be worked out.
Kate Walsh, Blair Ewing and Rosa Garcia were the other members who voted for the delay. Charlene M. Dukes was absent.
Baltimore Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.
School-by-school test results for the Baltimore area PG 10