Diploma Plan Stirs Concerns In Md.

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008

Barely a month before some Maryland school districts begin offering students an alternative path to graduation, school officials don't know exactly who will be required to participate and say they worry about the plan's costs and complexity.

State officials announced in October that they would allow students who have twice failed one or more of the High School Assessments in algebra, biology, English and government to complete projects to earn a diploma. The Bridge Plan for Academic Validation came as some estimated that thousands of students were at risk of not graduating because of the new testing requirement.

But as students in the Class of 2009 -- the first group that must meet the requirements-- move closer to the deadline, some are worried that the Bridge Plan is time-consuming, labor-intensive and not well-thought-out.

"I'm still hoping that somebody will actually examine this and see the light," said Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "It's literally amazing to me. Because had we locally come up with something like this . . . that was this not coherent, our parents would have pointed out this as half-baked."

Maryland education officials are visiting jurisdictions across the state to help school systems prepare to administer the plan. "Anytime you've got to do something new that has a lot of unknowns to it, I think it creates a lot of anxiety," said Ronald A. Peiffer, the state's deputy superintendent for academic policy. "Once it gets in place and people see how much it actually involves, I think it will start to feel a little more comfortable."

But most school systems have only a rough idea of how many students will rely on the alternative to graduate because they don't know what the test results will be. Maryland High School Assessments will be given next month.

And local officials have seen only one sample project in biology. It requires students to "design, conduct, and evaluate an investigation to determine an effect of light on the rate of photosynthesis" in underwater plants and is expected to involve a few weeks worth of work.

What local systems do know is that they will bear the cost of the projects. In Prince George's County, this was "north of a million dollars," Superintendent John E. Deasy said, and Montgomery officials estimated it would cost at least $1.5 million. The additional costs come as school systems face tightening budgets.

Peiffer said the projects would be ready by May. He estimated that 2,000 to 2,500 students statewide would use the Bridge Plan, although the number will depend largely on decisions at the local level. He said the Prince George's and Montgomery cost estimates seemed far higher than what he had heard from other jurisdictions.

Over the past few weeks, the state's testing officials have been visiting jurisdictions, trying to answer principals' questions about which students qualify for the Bridge Plan and how it will be administered, Peiffer said.

"Our staff has been pleasantly surprised by how quickly people get it," Peiffer said. "They understand the job that has to be done. Things are very much on track in virtually all of these systems."

But Weast, who has been a vocal critic of the exams, said the state's testing regimen "would give somebody a bit of acid indigestion, I would think." He has asked the state to postpone the graduation requirement by a year to iron out the details.

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