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One-Sixth of Md. Seniors Falling Short for Diplomas

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

BALTIMORE, Oct. 28 -- One of every six high school seniors in Maryland has not met a new state test-score requirement for receiving a diploma, state officials reported Tuesday, leaving thousands in jeopardy of missing graduation in the spring.

Even as state officials disclosed that 9,000 of 54,000 seniors have either fallen short on a battery of four tests in algebra, biology, government and English or have not yet taken all of them, the state Board of Education decided to move ahead with the requirement. Students who do not reach minimum scores can show mastery of the subjects through an alternative path.

On a 7 to 4 vote, the board rejected an effort to delay enforcement of the requirement after an impassioned debate, during which one board member shouted into his microphone and another almost broke into tears.

The tense vote affirming the Maryland High School Assessments kept the state in a national movement to tighten diploma standards. For several years, Virginia has required students to pass a series of Standards of Learning exams to earn a standard diploma. The District does not have high school exit exams.

"The HSA program is the backbone of the decade-long movement toward accountability," said Tom Evans, president of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick has strongly backed the HSAs.

Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast argued that the tests are flawed, making him the only local schools chief to publicly oppose them. Other critics said the tests would unfairly deny diplomas to otherwise successful students. Supporters said the tests would increase the diplomas' value, foster achievement and make the state's graduates more employable.

Of roughly 50,000 students in the Class of 2009 who have taken the four exams, about 90 percent have met the new requirement, said Leslie Wilson, the state's assistant superintendent for accountability. About 5,000 of those students have not. An additional 4,000 students have not yet taken all four tests.

To earn a diploma by June, students must pass all the tests, earn a combined minimum score or complete an academic project to show subject mastery. The latter option, known as the state "bridge plan for academic validation," was approved a year ago as an alternative for students who fail the tests twice.

Wilson said that the vast majority of the 9,000 are expected to meet diploma requirements and that those who are far behind probably would not have enough credits to graduate, regardless of their scores. Others, including transfer students, who are taking the tests for the first time could be eligible to appeal their status under a procedure state officials have not yet finalized.

Those who have fallen short on the exams are disproportionately black and Hispanic students, including many from Prince George's County and Baltimore. Among black students, about 79 percent had met the requirement; among Hispanic students, about 87 percent had done so. For white students, the rate was about 96 percent, and for Asian Americans, about 97 percent.

Weast, appearing on a panel of local superintendents, told the board he was "deeply troubled" by the impact on Hispanic students. "Since there is no adaptation for the test for language needs, I fear that many of these students will ultimately decide to drop out due to frustration," he said.

To Weast's right, Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso spoke in favor of the tests, raising his voice toward Rosa M. Garcia, a board member who had questioned the impact on Hispanic students: "As a Latino male, what I've seen in education is an extraordinary amount of negligence in the education of African American and Latino students," he said. "I think that what has happened in cities like Baltimore city is criminal. It's negligence."

After board member Blair G. Ewing proposed delaying enforcement for a year, board member Dunbar Brooks gave a loud, forceful speech.

"I believe the motion is not only disingenuous, it's dishonest," said Brooks, who accused critics of seeking to do away with the exams. "What you're saying to me, which is the height of racial insensitivity, is that I and my kids can go into the world young and dumb, and we'll convince them that it's in their self-interest."

"The motion is intended not to kill the HSAs," Ewing replied. "The intent is for us to see whether we can address the issues of fairness that have arisen. They haven't arisen from superintendents. They have risen from parents, from teachers . . . from members of the community."

At Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, according to state data, nearly 100 of 319 seniors have not met the exit standards. Principal Jim Fernandez said the main barriers are poverty and language needs. Thirteen percent of students are English learners, and nearly two-fifths receive federal meal subsidies, an index of poverty. "I changed the whole schedule so we could have an hour at lunch so we could tutor them at lunchtime," Fernandez said.

Since 2004, Virginia has required students to pass six end-of-course exams to qualify for a standard diploma. Those rules were refined beginning with the Class of 2007, when students were required to pass one exam each in math, science and history, two in English and one more in a subject of their choice. The requirement roused controversy when first imposed but has since become accepted, and officials say it disqualifies relatively few students each year from graduation.

Staff writers Daniel de Vise and Maria Glod contributed to this report.

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