Inti Guaman is a senior on the brink of either going off to college or staying behind to get through high school. It all depends on how quickly he is able to soak up vocabulary words so that he can pass his High School Assessment exam in English II.
Guaman, 18, arrived with his family from Ecuador three years ago speaking Spanish and only "a little bit" of English, he said. After a couple of years at Wheaton High School in classes designed for students learning English, he began switching to the regular curriculum. He has passed three of the four exams required for a diploma by the state, in government, biology and algebra, but only this year was his English good enough to enter the regular classes to prepare for the test. "It is a little hard because we have to read a lot of books with words we haven't heard before," Guaman said.
Educators fear that a large number of English-language learners like Guaman, as well as a large population of special- education students, might be denied a diploma in June because they cannot pass the High School Assessments. This week, the Maryland State Board of Education took a final vote to continue the requirement, which will take effect for the first time for this year's senior class.
Board members and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick agreed that they might need to create exemptions for some special-education students and those with limited English. In December, Grasmick said, she will present a plan allowing students to appeal the graduation requirement under specific conditions. She is concerned, she said, about students who aren't able to take the test until their senior year or who haven't received remedial help after failing tests, she said.
In addition, school board member Kate Walsh said she wants the board to look at whether the policy should be delayed for some special-education students. "My concern ... is that the state and school districts have not provided students adequate time" to pass or comply in alternative ways. She added those accommodations were "approved too late in the game."
She will not seek delays for those learning English, she said, because she believes they should become competent in the language before they receive a diploma.
Statewide, 50 percent of special-education students and 15 percent of students learning English have met the requirements. That compares with 83 percent of all students in the senior class.
Grasmick contends that nearly all students who are on track to graduate will get through. Those who haven't passed all four tests can meet the requirements by getting a combined score of 1,602 on all the tests or by completing projects in the subjects in which they have failed tests.
How educators view the plight of students is a highly emotional issue for some, such as Dunbar Brooks, a black state school board member, and Andres Alonso, a Latino who is Baltimore's school chief executive officer. The tests, they and others argue, have raised the standards for the most vulnerable students, giving them access to a more rigorous curriculum.
They frame the argument as a civil rights issue, and say they witnessed those groups being held back by a poor education. Students who fail this June, they say, can remain in high school until they do pass.
On the other side are parents and teachers who view the test requirement as blatantly unfair after witnessing the heartbreaking struggles of their own children or students.
Valerie Dixon, the mother of a Harford County senior who has some mild learning disabilities, says her daughter is demoralized over failing the exams and has to be pushed to go to school. Her daughter can pass the classes but has test anxiety and has trouble demonstrating her knowledge on tests.
"I am fearful that this whole experience has done irreparable harm to my child and has completely ruined her high school experience," Dixon said. The mother said she fears her daughter will drop out.
Most special-education students are expected to work toward a diploma unless they are determined by a team of teachers, administrators and psychologists to have a significant cognitive disability. If they have one of the more extreme disabilities they would earn a certificate of completion rather than a diploma. The state only counts students deemed capable of attaining a diploma in the statistics on how many students have passed.
As principal of Kenwood High School, Paul Martin is charged with helping about 27 special-education students in the senior class graduate. With one of the largest numbers of special-education students of any school in Baltimore County, Martin said, the challenges are great.
But he supports the requirements and says that No Child Left Behind and the High School Assessments have raised the standards for all students. "Business is not going to care if they have an IEP [an individual school plan written for students with disabilities]. They will be asked to perform the same," he said.
The Class of 2009 is somewhat behind - in part, he said, because not all students and their parents believed the requirement would take effect. When some students were offered extra help after school, they didn't come. Others who need to do projects haven't started. "We are still finding kids who say, 'I am not going to do this,' " Martin said. "They have to meet us halfway."
But the principal of Wheaton High School, which is half-Hispanic, worries about some students who have limited English skills. Kevin Lowndes says if students like Guaman fail the test in the spring they will not have the opportunity to do projects before graduation. Those students would ordinarily have received a diploma because they would have earned enough credits.
For many of his students, a good option will be to stay a fifth or sixth year in high school until they are proficient enough in the language to pass the tests. But, he said, the state should stop penalizing schools by measuring the graduation rate based on how many students finish in four years. "Most of these students are here because they are looking for a better opportunity and they understand that education is the key to that opportunity. They really want the diploma," said Lowndes.
Still, there are many students like Guaman who will spend the year worried about whether they can graduate.
"I am a little afraid," Guaman said.