Policy Approved To Waive Exams For Graduation

By Nelson Hernandez and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 19, 2008

Many Maryland high school seniors at risk of not graduating may be able to earn diplomas through a waiver of the state's new exit-exam requirements under a policy approved yesterday.

The waiver process, approved unanimously by the Maryland State Board of Education, provides another path to a diploma for some of the 4,000 seniors who have not passed or not taken one or more of the High School Assessments, a set of four exams in algebra, English, biology and government.

The estimate of 4,000 at-risk seniors is sharply reduced from an earlier statewide estimate of 9,000 because, state officials said, thousands of students have met graduation standards in recent months.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said the waiver was likely to affect "a small cohort" of students who have not completed courses or remedial work. Many of those affected would be students learning English as a second language or others in special education programs, she said.

"It's very hard to predict. The determination literally has to be made at the school level," Grasmick said. "I could say several hundred, and I'd probably be somewhat safe."

The Class of 2009 is the first to face a state test-score standard to qualify for diplomas. Lawmakers and some parent groups say they worry that the requirement could deprive thousands of seniors of diplomas. Other critics say the state has weakened what was originally a simple proposition meant to strengthen the value of a Maryland diploma.

"This is not about any kind of strategy to make sure that a child learns what we want him or her to learn," said Montgomery County Board of Education President Shirley Brandman (At Large). "This is an out."

Originally, students had to earn a minimum score on each test to graduate. Students now have a variety of routes around that. They can earn a minimum combined score on all four tests, meaning a student who scores very well in one subject can make up for a poor score in another. If a student fails a test twice, he or she can complete a project as a substitute for showing mastery of a subject. And some students will now be able to qualify for waivers.

The waiver policy, to be effective for one year, allows students who have completed courses, met attendance requirements and taken and failed the tests to appeal the testing requirement if they have had problems with course scheduling or remedial test preparation or if they face a special circumstance such as a long-term illness or the death of a parent.

Supporters said it provided a needed escape hatch for some students.

"I think it's appropriate to provide for kids who, based on extenuating circumstances, have not had the opportunity for all the interventions or remediations or the time to do that," said William R. Hite Jr., interim superintendent of Prince George's County schools.

In Montgomery County, where Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has stood alone among superintendents in publicly campaigning for a postponement of the testing requirement, officials expressed frustration with ever-changing rules and the confusion they generate.

Local jurisdictions have changed tactics several times in response to state-level decisions about exit standards. Several schools have launched seniors on independent study projects in case they should fail end-of-course exams. Some students, including many who speak English as a second language, are taking exit exams midway through courses because if they wait until the courses are nearly over, it will be too late to graduate with their class.

"Every time we think we know the rules of engagement, they change the rules," said Heath Morrison, a community superintendent who represents some of the Montgomery high schools with the most students at risk of not meeting the exit standards. "The amount of manpower this is taking is staggering."

Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said the exit standard has been updated so many times that it is effectively "a moving target. Nobody understands exactly what the requirements are."

Much of the power over who is granted a waiver rests in the hands of school principals and local superintendents, who decide whether a student is eligible. But Grasmick said she would be "looking over their shoulders" to ensure that the waiver's standards are closely enforced.

"This is not going to salvage every kid, and it's not for thousands of kids," Grasmick said. "These are very stringent requirements."

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