The state Board of Education's decision to let some students graduate in 2009 without passing the mandatory high school assessments tests is a bow to practical realities, but it shouldn't become the norm or weaken Maryland's commitment to higher standards.
This is the first academic year in which the tests are mandatory for graduation, and a relative handful of the state's 55,000 seniors are in danger of not getting their diplomas in June because they either haven't taken the tests or have failed in one or more subjects. The board's decision lets them apply for a waiver if they fulfill all the other requirements for graduation and can show they couldn't pass the tests for reasons beyond their control.
About 4,000 students potentially fall into that category. Some are students new to the system who are not native English speakers and haven't yet achieved enough proficiency in the language to take the courses or pass the test. Others are special education students whose programs aren't geared to the exams.
When Maryland began administering statewide High School Assessment tests in 2003, the goal was to ensure that every student who earned a diploma had a basic competence in four core subjects: English, math, science and American government. State officials recognized that in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, a solid high school education was crucial to students' long-term prospects for success.
Unlike the statewide achievement tests taken by elementary and middle school students, which are aimed at identifying schools that need improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the HSAs measure how well individual students have mastered material taught during the year. Most students complete all the tests before the end of their junior year.
State Schools Supt. Nancy S. Grasmick remains committed to keeping the testing mandatory for graduation, but she recommended allowing student waivers in cases where the problem really isn't a student's fault. Appeals could be made to a school principal, district superintendent or Ms. Grasmick, and only for this year. That's a reasonable adjustment that doesn't water down the state's commitment to excellence but allows kids who otherwise have worked hard to get their diplomas and get on with their lives.