4,660 Md. seniors at risk of not graduating over HSA requirement

The Baltimore Sun

With three months left in the school year, more than 8 percent of Maryland seniors are at risk of not graduating, education officials said Tuesday in releasing the first precise count of how well the Class of 2009 is meeting the High School Assessments.

This year's seniors are the first who have been required to pass four tests in biology, English II, American government and algebra or do extra projects to prove they have mastered the material before getting a diploma.

Despite the large number - 4,660 students in a class of 53,000 - officials told the state school board that they are confident that most will qualify by retaking tests in April or May, completing the projects or getting waivers. Special education students and those who are learning English as a second language are at the greatest risk of not graduating.

Schools are working urgently to see that students complete projects in subjects in which they have failed tests. One city high school principal, Northwestern's Jason Hartling, said his staff is working at night and on Saturdays to try to get seniors on track.

About 800 projects are to be graded this weekend in Baltimore alone as well as hundreds in other counties. Based on projects evaluated earlier, the expectation is that about 80 percent of the submissions are being accepted. Graders include teachers and administrators from outside the schools.

"The vast majority of students have a chance to graduate in May," said R. Scott Pfiefer, the state's director of instructional assessment. He went further, predicting that the state's graduation rate could increase this spring compared with last year.

The new requirement, some department officials said, might have boosted the effort of some schools to give extra help to students who were lagging behind.

"Students can no longer hide in the back of the classroom," said Leslie Wilson, who is head of testing for the state.

Wilson said that the dropout rate is lower and that fewer high school students statewide are not passing from one grade to the next, a sign that they are meeting requirements.

State school board members did not express any alarm at the figures and appeared to be satisfied that only a small percentage of students might not graduate. The presentation Tuesday at the board meeting was the first time the state gave more than an estimate of those in the Class of 2009 who have yet to pass the HSA.

The end-of-course exams are designed to set a minimum graduation standard for the state so that students leave high school with basic skills.

They are not intended to ensure that students are ready for college work.

Of the state's 24 school districts, the largest four districts with the highest urban populations have the majority of students who must still pass.

About 76 percent of the students who have not met the requirement attend public schools in Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties as well as Baltimore City.

Elsewhere the average is about 10 seniors per school. The number is no greater than 25 at 139 of the roughly 200 high schools across the state.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who had said consistently that there would be no students who would not graduate because they cannot pass the assessments, moderated her position. She told the board Tuesday that she believed there would be a small number of students who would fail to graduate because they were not willing to put in the work needed to do the projects or to study for the tests.

She also said there would be students, particularly some immigrants who are learning English as a second language, who would probably need a waiver because they were not taught the material to pass the exams until their senior year. The state regulations require that students be given an opportunity to get extra help if they cannot pass a test, and those students would not have time to receive that assistance.

Most students take the exams for the first time as eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders after they have taken the course for a year. But a few school systems have failed to offer biology or American government until students were juniors or seniors.

State board members had grown increasingly frustrated with receiving estimates but no precise numbers of how many students had failed to meet the requirement. The board requested that the staff call each high school in the state.

Members of the board were given a school-by-school report, but it will not be made public until later this week.

Wilson also said the state will introduce a new test in May that does not require students to do any writing, which takes longer to grade. That will allow students to get the results within two weeks rather than months. The state also plans to introduce an online test.

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