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Md. Says Graduation Stats Prove Exit Exams Work

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

BALTIMORE, Sept. 21 -- Only 11 of more than 60,000 Maryland high school seniors did not graduate last spring solely because they failed the state's new required exams, state officials said Monday as they claimed success in a program meant to bolster academic rigor.

The results for the Class of 2009, the first required to pass the High School Assessments -- a set of exams in English, algebra, biology and government -- show the compromises educators face in balancing what is politically palatable against raising academic standards. Although the results are encouraging, some are asking how tough the tests could be if only a tiny percentage of the students fail.

More than 2,000 other students fell short of graduating because they did not meet local school systems' graduation standards or failed both the HSAs and the local requirements. An additional 1,500 who did not graduate either were not required to pass the exam because they were in special programs or had started school before the exam was mandated.

But the crucial number critics were watching -- the number of students who failed to graduate exclusively because of the exams -- barely made it into double digits.

"Since the number is so small, one could raise the question: Are we setting the standards high enough?" board member S. James Gates Jr. asked at a meeting Monday.

"We have said repeatedly that the High School Assessments were a floor and not a ceiling," State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick responded. "Now that we've achieved a floor, I think the next step is to raise the standards."

As recently as a year ago, many feared that the bar had been set too high and thousands of seniors would be denied diplomas. Some state school board members and lawmakers tried to delay the exams or scuttle them.

Proponents of toughening academic standards, led by Grasmick, successfully pushed through the testing plan, arguing that it would hold schools accountable for educating children who had been allowed to slide through in the past. But they made compromises that effectively allowed nearly a third of the Class of 2009 to graduate without passing all four exams.

Most seniors in the Class of 2009 -- 68.2 percent -- passed all four tests. But about 15.6 percent attained a minimum combined score on the four exams under a provision that allows students to fail a subject if they do especially well on another. Another 5.8 percent completed state-designed projects meant to demonstrate mastery of a subject. Almost 1 percent received waivers for unusual circumstances.

Grasmick said in an interview that alternative methods of passing the test, such as completing the projects, are no less rigorous than taking the tests. But she also said she wanted fewer students to use those options, in part because they do not count toward whether a school will meet state standards for academic achievement.

"Do we want those other options to decline? Yes," she said.

Another 1,700 students dropped out during their senior year, which state officials said was less than the typical 1,900 dropouts. Testing opponents have often warned that the exam requirement could lead to a rise in the dropout rate, but Maryland officials said their graduation rate rose by 1 percent.

"I think this is a very optimistic report," Grasmick told the board. "It's just been an amazing job."

State officials also announced that 185 of 238 high schools met state standards for academic progress. Forty-three high schools are in "school improvement," a label applied to schools that are struggling academically, five fewer than last year.

State officials did not post county- and school-level test results. They said those would be available online Tuesday, but some Washington-area counties issued their own data.

Twenty-three of the 25 high schools in Montgomery County met the state's standard for "adequate yearly progress," the county school system said in a statement. After reaching the standard for two consecutive years, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring has been removed from the state's school improvement list.

But Springbrook and Northwood high schools, both also in Silver Spring, did not reach the standard. Reading targets were not met for special education and limited English proficient students at Springbrook, while Northwood missed the graduation rate target for all students, according to the statement.

All 12 of Anne Arundel County's high schools met state academic standards, including Annapolis High School, which was taken off the state watch list after years of academic struggle.

Annapolis High was radically restructured 2 1/2 years ago, leading to the replacement of nearly half its staff. Under Principal Donald Lilley, the revitalized school has earned the support of the community, Lilley and Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said.

"It's one of the proudest days of my life, honestly," Maxwell said. "I think the pieces that came together brought us a really vibrant faculty and staff that relates well with each other, that engages with the community and parents in this school."

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