Number of Md. Seniors Who Haven't Passed State Tests Drops

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

With less than a month left in the school year, Maryland education officials have about 2,500 fewer reasons to be worried about the fallout from enforcement of the state's new exit exam requirement.

The number of high school seniors statewide who have not met the requirements of the High School Assessments, a set of tests in algebra, English, biology and government, has dropped from more than 4,000 in March to fewer than 1,500, the state Department of Education reported yesterday.

The decline in the number of students at risk continues a trend that has accelerated in recent months. At the beginning of the school year, 9,000 seniors out of about 55,000 projected to graduate had not met the testing requirements, stoking fears that thousands of teenagers would leave high school without a diploma.

Now there is less reason to worry, although some testing opponents say the tests caused some students to drop out before the end of the school year. State officials say the graduation rate will hold steady compared with those of previous years.

Of the 1,460 seniors who have not passed the High School Assessments or met alternative standards, 613 were in Prince George's County and 543 in Baltimore, the report says. There were 100 such students in Montgomery County and 69 in Anne Arundel County, state officials said.

Prince George's officials said that the 613-student figure used by the state was a week old and that only 465 seniors have not met the requirement, about 6 percent of the county's expected graduating class of 7,299. School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the lower figure reflected a changed attitude among students.

"In December, it wasn't as much urgency for the students," Hite said. "We were basket cases around this." But with the end of the school year approaching and with students eager to graduate, they are taking the tests more seriously, he said.

Students who do not complete the testing requirements in time for graduation will be sent to summer classes to do the work needed to earn a diploma, Hite said.

About half of the states, including Virginia, have exit exams. D.C. public schools do not.

Enforcement of Maryland's HSA requirement is kicking in for the first time this spring. Under state policy, students must pass the four tests or achieve a combined minimum score to qualify for a diploma. But the state built in a safety net: Students who have not passed one or more of the tests can satisfy the requirement by completing alternative academic projects that demonstrate their mastery of the subject.

The state-designed projects have proved crucial in Prince George's, where 2,700 students had not passed the tests as of December. Hite said that in recent months, administrators have been scoring 300 to 800 projects a week as they try to help students fulfill the requirements.

Some critics have said that the projects dilute the rigor of the state standards. State and most local officials disagree, saying the projects are in some cases more difficult than the tests because they require more work to complete.

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