In Maryland's public high schools, most of the class of 2009 has passed the state's new graduation exams. But for those seniors who haven't, there are other routes to a diploma.
If they can't pass all four High School Assessments - ninth- and 10th-grade-level exams in Algebra 1, English, biology and American government - they can meet the requirement by earning a minimum composite score. Or they can complete projects demonstrating the same skills, a more significant alternative for those who aren't good at sitting for a three-hour test.
When officials ask students who didn't pass the tests what went wrong, "one of the most common answers is 'I can't sit that long,' " said Bernie Sadusky, a former Queen Anne's County superintendent advising the state education department on the projects.
The projects are designed to put the material students are learning into a real-world context. The number of projects students must do is determined by how far they are from a test's passing score. If students retake a test and improve their score but still do not pass, at least they will have reduced the number of projects on their plate. In English, where a 396 is a passing score, a student who scores below 264 must do seven projects in that subject alone. Improve to 330, and the number of projects is cut to three.
The total number of projects under way statewide is a moving target, with thousands completed so far and students working on thousands more. In Baltimore alone, 1,142 students were working on 5,139 projects, of which 1,188 have been turned in.
Because of the extensive support and guidance provided to students, the project pass rates so far have been relatively high; statewide, 68 percent of the projects have been accepted. Baltimore's pass rate was 62 percent through November, and officials say they expect the pass rate to increase significantly after a huge influx of projects in December.
At Southside Academy in Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood, one senior began this fall with 17 projects to complete, another had 18, and many had at least three. Algebra teacher and project coordinator LaShaviar Burns tries to keep them from getting overwhelmed by having them tackle one subject at a time.
"You've got to keep encouraging them, 'This is for graduation,' " said Burns, who works with students on projects during the last period of the school day and has stayed with them for hours after the final bell has rung. "I always say, 'If you get this part done, you don't have to revisit math again. We'll go to the next subject area.' "
So what is a project, anyway? In government, students might have to write a memo to a local zoning board weighing the land use issues involved in a proposed shopping center. In algebra, they might be asked to survey different groups of classmates - boys and girls, for example - about how much time they spend on homework. Then they would analyze the results by answering questions. What is the probability that five randomly selected students in the sample study at least four hours a week?
State officials say a project typically takes a student eight to 12 hours to complete, though the time is often greater for students with disabilities. Projects measure the same concepts that students need to know for the HSAs, with some key differences. While each of the exams must be done in one long sitting, students can complete a project over the course of several days or weeks. There's also more adult oversight.
Projects clearly outline steps that students must take to succeed, and a "project monitor" - usually a teacher in the subject being tested - signs off along the way to verify that the steps are being followed.
One biology project asks students to examine the relationship between the amount of water submerging aquatic vegetation in a bay and the cloudiness of the water. The students must first write a hypothesis, list the materials for an investigation to test the hypothesis and write a procedure for the investigation. Before moving on to step four, which involves identifying independent and dependent variables, they must get the project monitor's approval. By the time the students reach step 10, writing a conclusion, the monitor will have signed off three more times.
A student who fails an HSA must retake the test in its entirety. But if a project is not approved, the student is entitled to an explanation of what part or parts of the work was inadequate, and must redo only that part.
Tisha Edwards, who supervises the projects for Baltimore's school system, said the system always has some seniors who don't graduate, but she does not expect that the HSA requirement will be the barrier. "People thought, 'Oh, with these tests there were going to be more kids not graduating,' and that's not necessarily true," she said.
As students retake tests and work on projects simultaneously, many teachers are finding that students understand the concepts better from the projects and are now able to pass the exams.
Scott Pfeifer, the state's director of instructional assessment, said teachers are asking if they can use a project to instruct the entire class. As long as the questions are modified, the answer is yes. "Teachers see its value," said Pfeifer, who was until recently the principal of Centennial High School in Howard County.
The state allows school districts to make rules about how projects are done, and many districts leave it to individual schools. Some schools allow students to take their projects home; others insist that they be done in class, like a test.
In Baltimore, officials have committed to grading the projects the same weekend that students turn them in, so they know within days whether they passed. For HSA results, the suspense can last up to two and a half months.
On the weekend before Christmas, 50 teachers being paid $30 an hour set up a grading center at Edmondson-Westside High School and scored 880 projects.
Lori Bush, an American government teacher at Edmondson and the school's project coordinator, said the scoring sessions were excellent professional development. They showed her what the state is looking for from her students. And though teachers never grade projects from their own schools, she was able to see the mistakes that other students repeated.
Grading procedures vary by district and by subject. In Washington County, where only a few dozen students might need to do the projects, an entire panel will look at each submission. In Baltimore, two teachers review every government project, with a third coming in as a tie-breaker if there's disagreement. In algebra, where answers are either right or wrong, a project is reviewed by just one teacher if the person has attended a previous scoring session; those new to the process score in pairs.
At Edmondson, Bush said, most of her students are taking the graduation requirement seriously and working hard on their projects and test preparation, but she worries about a few who are waiting to see if the state will back down. A recent debate by the state school board over whether to keep the requirement didn't help their motivation, she said.
"Teenagers see adults change their minds so much that they don't believe that this is truly going to be a requirement for them," she said. A few weeks ago, students noticed when the state school board agreed to let those in extenuating circumstances apply for waivers.
"I told them none of them qualify for it," Bush said. "I was like, 'Get back to class 'cause it doesn't affect you at all.' "