Alternate Route to Diploma Proposed in Md.

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

BALTIMORE, Aug. 28 -- Maryland high school students who are unable to pass a set of exams required for graduation could instead submit projects to demonstrate their mastery of academic subjects, under a plan introduced Tuesday by State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Students in the Class of 2009 (this year's juniors) and those who follow must pass the exams in algebra, English, biology and government -- or earn an adequate composite score on them -- to graduate.

Grasmick offered her alternative because she is concerned that hundreds of students could be denied diplomas based on a single set of tests, rather than on their mastery of the subject.

She announced her proposal and discussed this year's results of the High School Assessments at a State Board of Education meeting in Baltimore. She said that the number of students who would be affected by the proposal, known as the "Bridge Plan for Academic Validation," would be small and that most students would be able to pass the tests without assistance.

The state did not release its data, but local jurisdictions reported that overall pass rates on the test for the Class of 2009 ranged from about two-thirds in Prince George's County to higher than 80 percent in Howard County.

Opponents of the tests say thousands of students -- particularly in Baltimore and Prince George's County -- are at risk of being denied diplomas, and some state lawmakers have been calling for the testing system to be examined and perhaps made more lenient.

Supporters of the exams, including Grasmick, have warned that weakening the requirements would devalue high school diplomas and render students unable to compete in the global marketplace.

Charles County Superintendent James E. Richmond said Grasmick's proposal provides flexibility for struggling students.

"It's not letting any student off the hook, and it's not dumbing it down or watering it down," he said. "But as you know, some kids can do things one way and others can do it a different way."

School officials and outside experts were receptive to the Bridge Plan but warned that the state would need to enforce high standards for the projects. The options would be limited to seniors who have failed the tests several times, state officials said.

Most states that use exit exams -- about half do -- have some mechanism for dealing with students who fail repeatedly, said Mike Cohen, president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization that helps states set educational standards. But the methods vary widely.

In Massachusetts, students who have failed the test but done well in coursework can appeal. Only a small percentage of students have relied on the appeal. But in New Jersey, about 12 percent of all graduates, and one-third of all graduates in some urban districts, have relied on alternative assessments, according to a report this month by the Education Law Center, a New Jersey-based advocacy group.

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