If Md. Exit Exams Don't Earn A Diploma, Extra Credit Could

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

A great gulf separates the wandering minds of typical Maryland high school seniors and the ever-frazzled ones of school administrators, but the two groups have found at least one thing in common this year: Both get a laserlike focus when diplomas are at stake.

There is nothing like a crisis to sharpen attention, and Maryland has one. Nine thousand seniors, or one in every six, are at risk of not graduating this year because they've failed or not taken state tests in algebra, biology, government and English, the first year passing scores are required to earn a diploma. The failing students are concentrated among black, Hispanic and poor populations. Attempts to delay or abolish the tests, known as the High School Assessments, have been shot down.

But there is a last-ditch alternative for those whose graduation is in jeopardy: They can complete academic projects to show competence in the subjects.

In Prince George's, for example, where one in every three seniors has failed or not taken at least one of the High School Assessments, the Bridge Plan for Academic Validation is vital to avoiding disaster at graduation time. In October, 1,175 county students were working on 2,260 projects, said Paul Mazza, a supervisor of the county's testing department.

Thousands more students are working on the projects in each of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions. State officials say they expect the vast majority of the 9,000 students to meet graduation requirements, either by completing the projects, passing the tests on a fresh attempt or satisfying the conditions for an appeal.

Early results of the Bridge Plan are mildly promising, with most students appearing to be motivated enough to pass, say state officials, school principals in Prince George's and Howard counties, and a few students.

But vast challenges remain before they can breathe easy in May.

During the summer, 250 students in 11 school systems completed projects, and 70 percent of the projects were approved on first submission, according to Bernard Sandusky, the Bridge Plan's program director. Most students are working on projects during the current school year, but those results are not yet in. If a project is rejected, students are told where they're failing and have an opportunity to make a new submission. Maryland's projects are designed by the state but graded by local school systems.

Most states that have high-stakes exit exams offer alternatives, but few are so complex. Virginia, like many states, offers alternatives for students with disabilities; the District doesn't have an exit-exam program. Depending on a student's test scores, he or she has to complete as many as 28 projects, each of which takes a few weeks of class time.

An English project this year, for example, asks students to "research an author's life, locate and read literary works by the author, compare and contrast the author's life to the ideas and events in his or her works, write an essay reflecting this analysis, and compile a sources list." The students are required to complete these steps in the format prescribed by a workbook given out by the state.

When the Bridge Plan was introduced a year ago, it was assailed by those who saw it as a politically expedient change that would water down the tests' standards by allowing school districts to judge whether a student had demonstrated mastery of a subject. But state officials say they audit results to check whether districts are imposing a rigorous standard.

R. Scott Pfeiffer, director of instructional assessment for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the number of students whose projects were being sent back for revisions is a sign that the projects were not the watered-down alternative critics feared they would be.

"That's a good number," he said. "It means that we're hitting the mark of having something that's rigorous that at the same time is doable."

During the summer in Prince George's, 86 students submitted 80 projects, Mazza said; 46 projects were returned for revision. The state's overall pass rate was higher, Pfeiffer said.

Local officials had expressed anxiety over being able to pull everything together for the labor-intensive process of administering and evaluating the projects. But they were ready when the school year started, Sandusky said.

"There's a lot going on now, and as the numbers start to roll in, we'll start to have some really meaningful data," Sandusky said. "It really is in full swing."

William R. Hite Jr., who on Monday will take over as Prince George's superintendent, said the number of those in the program reflects the "sense of urgency" among educators.

"As a school system, we should be guaranteeing that all of our graduates are able to do certain things at a minimum level," he said. "In the past, we've just been moving them through the system and graduating them. I think we do a disservice to children if we do that, especially when it means two years of remediation in a college program."

One day this month, Joslyn Wolfe's class at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, where students were working on projects and preparation for the English test, was the antithesis of what one would expect in a class of boisterous teenagers. It was as silent as a library, the only sounds the scratching of pens and the teacher quietly talking to students individually if they had a question.

"I think that students demonstrate their mastery in different ways," Principal Frank V. Eastham Jr. said. "I think the bridge program acknowledges that."

The scene in Tanya Brooks's class at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, where students were working on bridge projects for algebra, was similar to that in Howard County. Students were silent and focused.

"It's workable," said Cameria Porter, 17, who needs a diploma if she wants to fulfill her hope to join the Air Force. "It gives us a better opportunity to walk across the stage." She needs just 15 more points to pass the algebra exam, which she has failed twice. (A student can take an exam unlimited times.)

Her classmate Diana Williams, 17 and an aspiring fashion designer, agreed. "I think it's easy," she said. "You have the teacher here to help you, and you don't feel pressure about when you're testing. And you can work step by step."

She has to complete projects in algebra, biology and English. Asked whether she would be able to use the subjects in her desired career, she replied: "I don't know. Maybe not. I don't think so."

With her diploma riding on it, however, she was willing to put in the effort -- a common response, said Douglass High's principal, Rudolph R. Saunders Jr.

"This has given students new life," he said. "This isn't a program where I have had to twist arms. . . . They're a lot more focused on this than on anything we've done."

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