By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 10:24 PM
Maryland's high school testing requirements were designed to increase rigor and the value of the state's diplomas, but only a tiny fraction of seniors this year failed to graduate because of their exam results, and an increasing number of students are using alternative assessments because they have difficulty passing the regular tests, according to data released Wednesday by the State Department of Education.
The tests, the High School Assessments, have been criticized by some educators as not being sufficiently rigorous to determine whether a student is truly ready to graduate. But state officials say the tests - in algebra, English, biology and government - are an important minimum requirement and have improved high school education.
This year, 0.06 percent of seniors failed to receive their diplomas because of the tests and 8.6 percent of the senior class graduated only after completing the alternative projects, an increase of 2.3 percentage points from 2009. And some students received waivers exempting them from the requirements altogether.
State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said the assessments, now in their second year, had forced schools to consider whether each student was prepared to graduate.
"I believe that no students are anonymous any longer," Grasmick said. "I could not have said that five years ago." She added that the use of alternative assessments are growing because there are more recent immigrants and those learning English in the state.
Even though the tests are holding relatively few students back, data show that the requirements are requiring many students to work harder. In Prince George's County, 16.5 percent of seniors had to complete the alternative projects to pass, and at some schools the figure was more than 40 percent. In 2009, 13.1 percent of Prince George's high school seniors needed to do the projects to get a diploma.
State officials said that each required module of the alternative assessment could take students eight to 15 hours to complete. The lower a student scores on the regular exam, the more modules he or she must complete to meet the requirements. To graduate, students also must meet Maryland's curriculum requirements.
In Montgomery County, 4.9 percent of high school seniors had to complete alternative projects this year and 0.7 percent passed via waivers.
Virginia started phasing out its alternative assessments this year after criticism that schools were using them to avoid accountability.
Maryland officials said that is not an issue in their schools.
"This is a minimal requirement that we think our students will have to rise above," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. About half of the states require exit tests for graduation; the District does not.
But some education advocates question whether the assessments are a good use of time.
"We continue to have low standards for them, and then when they pass, we say, 'Great,' " said Jessica Shiller, education policy director at Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit group that focuses on Maryland education.
The state also released data on whether high schools had met federal benchmarks - or made adequate yearly progress - as measured by math and reading exams. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools are required to meet increasingly higher benchmarks until 2014, when 100 percent of a school's students must pass the exams for a school to make the cut. An increasing number of schools nationwide are having trouble meeting the requirements.
In Montgomery, 10 of 25 high schools failed to meet federal benchmarks, most because of the scores of those with special needs and students who speak limited English. In Prince George's, 17 of 22 high schools failed to meet the benchmarks.
Graduation rates increased to 86.6 percent statewide, up from 85.2 percent last year. In Montgomery, that figure was 90 percent, up from 87.4 percent, and in Prince George's, it was 84.4 percent, down from 84.6 percent.