Editorial -- Maryland concocts a way to let failing high school seniors graduate.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

WITH THE deadline drawing closer for Maryland's new graduation requirements to take effect, an estimated 4,000 high school seniors are still failing. The solution of state education officials is to allow principals and local superintendents to waive the rules for certain students unable to pass the exit exams. So much for the noble effort to make a high school diploma really mean something.

The State Board of Education last week gave its unanimous approval to a policy permitting students who have not passed the high school assessments to graduate via a special waiver process. In approving the emergency regulation, officials stressed that the waiver would be used only for students graduating this school year and that only a small number of students would be affected. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick characterized these students as those who can't meet the requirements "through no fault of their own."

We have no doubt that there are students who can't pass the tests, in four core subjects, because of circumstances largely beyond their control. Perhaps they had lousy teachers or weren't offered special help or the schools erred in scheduling tests. But, simply passing them through the system is of no benefit to them or to the system that produced them. As Montgomery County Board of Education President Shirley Brandman told The Post, "This is not about any kind of strategy to make sure that a child learns what we want him or her to learn. This is an out."

There may be some circumstances -- such as an illness or family emergency -- that could preclude graduation of a qualified student, but any appeal should be removed from local school authorities, which have their own stake in the number of students earning diplomas. As the Baltimore Sun noted, the language of the regulations leaves open to interpretation who exactly can qualify. The waiver is the latest but most troubling example of the watering down of the high school assessments since they were initiated in 2003. The original requirement that a student earn a minimum score on each test was modified to allow a minimum score on all four tests. Then came the change that allowed students who flunked the tests more than once to do a project to show their mastery of a subject. Now comes the waiver and, bingo, Maryland is right where it started, when diplomas were awarded but not necessarily earned.

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