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Diploma Plan Stirs Concerns In Md.
Some Districts Fault Testing Alternative

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.

Critics have long feared that the testing requirement could lead to thousands of students being deprived of diplomas. In the past year, several aspects of the testing program have been changed to address these worries: The state eliminated questions requiring written answers in favor of easier-to-score multiple-choice questions; it introduced a modified test for students with learning disabilities; and it did away with a required minimum score on all four tests, instead allowing students to get a minimum combined score.

Weast said the changes were a sign of poor planning for a test that has been in the works for more than a decade.

"We're not going to say, 'No, we can't do this,' " said Jody Leleck, chief academic officer for Montgomery schools. "I just wonder at what cost. The school buildings are going to implode at some point with all the pressure we put on our principals and our kids."

"It's peculiar we're getting that reaction from Montgomery County," Peiffer said, "because when our folks are going out into the field, into every other school system, they seem to be comfortable with what we've put together. I'm not quite sure what's different about Montgomery County than the other 23 systems."

Montgomery is the only system to publicly ask for a delay, but officials from other areas say they have worries and questions as well.

"We are expecting ourselves to be ready come summer if the state holds true to having the [project] modules ready," said George Arlotto, chief school performance officer in Anne Arundel County. "Do I think we're ready for prime time? No, I don't. We're still hoping to get many questions answered."

In Howard County, concerns have been largely resolved, said Clarissa Evans, executive director of secondary curricular programs. The school system adopted new graduation requirements that allow the Bridge Plan, Evans said, and better defined terms in the plan.

The county intends to start offering the projects in the fall, Evans said. Under the worst-case scenario, 255 students would rely on the projects, she said.

In Prince George's, roughly 800 to 1,000 students will be eligible to do the projects, Deasy said.

Deasy said that his schools are prepared to administer the Bridge Plan but that he is worried about the cost and the effect on schools' ability to meet federal standards for reading and math. (Students who meet the graduation requirement by earning a minimum combined score or completing a project don't get credit toward the federal requirement.)

"We have to handle it," Deasy said. "We think it is rapidly becoming an enormous project to be taking on with no additional funds to support it."

Others in Prince George's show a trace of morbid humor: "What's the difference between the Bridge Plan and the Titanic?" goes one joke. "The Titanic had a band."

But at a Bridge Plan training session in Prince George's this month, the county's principals and testing coordinators -- the crew responsible for carrying out the will of the state -- were not running for the lifeboats just yet.

Before anything was said, Deasy asked for a moment of silence for five students who had died recently -- two by drowning, one in a hit-and-run accident, one in a shooting and another by stabbing. The rest of the meeting was carried out as soberly, and if the group had any misgivings about the Bridge Plan, the administrators kept them to themselves.

Adaya Powell, special education chairwoman for Frederick Douglass High School, summed it up simply: "This is our profession."

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