School board approves waivers

The Baltimore Sun

With 4,000 high school seniors in Maryland still failing to meet new graduation requirements, the state school board yesterday decided to allow principals and local superintendents to waive the requirements for students with extenuating circumstances.

The emergency regulation, which passed unanimously, is designed for those students who can't meet the requirements "through no fault of their own," said state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick. She estimated that a few hundred students would receive the waiver.

While the language in the regulation leaves the matter of who will qualify open to interpretation by the superintendents, Grasmick said they understand it is to be used in limited circumstances and only for the Class of 2009. The regulation will expire in a year.

The graduation requirements were put in place to raise academic performance so that graduates are adequately prepared. For the first time, current seniors must pass the High School Assessments, a series of four tests in algebra, biology, American government and 10th grade English. Students who fail a test twice may do projects to achieve a passing score, but even so, many students are running out of time to complete the work.

"I think this would apply to very, very few kids, particularly in Howard County. At most it would be a handful. It is not a carte blanche for superintendents to get kids out of the requirements for the HSAs," said Sydney L. Cousin, Howard's superintendent.

Even the principal at Northwestern High School in Baltimore, which has one of the state's highest rates of failure to pass the HSAs, said the waiver shouldn't be used indiscriminately. "I think as long as it doesn't become a substitution for high standards it is a good thing," said Jason Hartling. He said he has many students who have to do projects because they have failed the test, and he doesn't want them to believe they won't have to do the work. "Ultimately, my students have to understand that they need to pass the test or demonstrate the standard in another way."

It is not designed, state officials said, for students who have refused the extra help after school or on Saturdays and who lack motivation to pass the classes.

The regulation attempts to address some of the questions of fairness that have swirled around the new requirement. Some education advocates have argued that not all students have access to tutoring or extra help when they are failing the courses, and that many of the students now in high school have not had the benefit of the increased levels of state funding as younger children.

They also have pointed out that special education students and those with limited proficiency in English may have had limited access to the standard curriculum. Some school systems made mistakes in the sequence of courses they scheduled for students. For instance, they teach biology and government late in high school, giving students little time to take the test more than once or to get extra help and try again.

"I think [the board members] were clearly struck by the notion that many students may be seniors and not have had access to the HSA courses until their senior year," said John Woolums, a spokesman for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. Woolums said his association may file a complaint with the state because it contends local school boards should not have been cut out of the process.

By Feb. 1, schools must send a letter to all parents of students who are at risk of not graduating to inform them that their child may be eligible for a waiver.

By April 1, the local superintendents will report to the state superintendent the names of all students who appear unlikely to graduate, and by May 1, the students will learn whether they have gotten a waiver.

In order for students to be eligible for the waiver, they would have to have taken all four tests, be on track to complete their high school course requirements and have taken advantage of any remedial or extra help that was offered to them by their school to help them pass the tests.

Students who might qualify include those who did not take an HSA course until senior year, were not given extra help if they failed the test, or were not given adequate access to the standard curriculum.

School board members did not question the need for the waiver, but confronted Grasmick over what they believe is the department's failure to provide the board with timely information on the number of students who currently are at risk of not graduating because they haven't met the requirements.

When board member Blair Ewing asked Grasmick for her estimate, she said it was several thousand students. When Ewing and Kate Walsh asked again, Grasmick said it was about 4,000.

"We have been told that every principal and every superintendent knows which students haven't passed," Ewing said. "It puts the board in a peculiar situation," when the board is asked by the public how many students haven't met the requirement and board members have to say they don't know because they can't get information. "I would hope we would get this routinely," he said.

Grasmick said the board had not requested monthly reports previously, but that she would provide them. The number changes daily, she said, as more students have their projects approved or pass tests and meet the standard.

At its October meeting, the board was told that 9,000 students or about 83 percent of the Class of 2009 had failed to meet the requirements by the end of the last school year.

Since then, at least 1,000 students have completed projects. Others have taken and passed the tests or improved their test scores and done projects.

WAIVER ELIGIBILITY

Here are the criteria to appeal the denial of a diploma:

* The student is expected to meet all other graduation requirements.

* The student has taken or will take the four subject tests.

* The student has taken advantage of any extra help that was offered.

* There was a decision by the local school system about scheduling, course sequencing, test taking or remediation - or some circumstance that prevented meeting the HSA graduation requirements.

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