- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2007

BALTIMORE (AP) — A divided Maryland State Board of Education voted yesterday to continue requiring high-school students to pass exit exams in order to graduate starting in 2009.

However, the board made changes to the testing program that should give some students a better chance to earn their diplomas.

Under the new regulations, students who fail one or more of the four tests — in algebra, biology, English and government — will have the option to complete projects that demonstrate proficiency in the subjects.

The board also eliminated restrictions on the combined-score option, under which students can earn a diploma if the sum of their score on the four tests is equal to the total of four passing scores. Previously, students who wished to use that option would have been required to achieve a minimum, although not a passing, score on each test.

The four board members who voted against the changes threw their support instead behind a motion to delay until 2010 the requirement that students pass the tests in order to graduate.

The hearing grew contentious as members debated that motion.

“Don’t put this off till next year. That’s ridiculous,” said board member David F. Tufaro.

Board members Blair G. Ewing and Rosa M. Garcia accused the board of rushing to a decision and setting up children to fail.

“I don’t think that we’ve done our due diligence,” said Miss Garcia, who predicted that dropout rates would rise. She noted the state has a responsibility to all students, even those who drop out, and lamented what she called “very dismissive comments about students who don’t pass.”

Mr. Ewing said he has “a grave concern” that some local school systems are not doing enough to help students who struggle to pass the tests. “I don’t know whether the local systems can in fact mount the kind of effort it’s going to take to provide that support,” he said.

Mr. Ewing, Miss Garcia, Mary Kay Finan and Charlene M. Dukes, who voted to delay the graduation requirement, were appointed to the board by Gov. Martin O’Malley. Miss Garcia, Mr. Ewing and Miss Finan met recently with Mr. O’Malley to discuss the board’s activities, a meeting Miss Garcia said she requested.

Mr. Tufaro said he found that meeting “inappropriate” because the board is nonpartisan and accused the O’Malley appointees of political motivation. After the meeting, Mr. Ewing and Miss Garcia denied that claim.

“The governor didn’t tell us how to vote,” Mr. Ewing said. “The governor’s interested.”

Mr. O’Malley has clashed for years with State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who pushed for the tests to become mandatory for graduation and proposed the changes that the board approved yesterday. Mr. O’Malley said in September that the governor, not the board, should appoint the superintendent. Mrs. Grasmick has held the office since 1991. She praised the board’s vote.

“It is never easy to raise standards, but the state board has made a courageous decision,” Mrs. Grasmick said. “Our students will rise to the occasion.”

Board members who supported making the tests a graduation requirement said students would suffer if the state did not begin holding school systems and teachers accountable.

“For the past 50 years … nobody has had to pay a consequence for the abysmal performance of African-American students and poor kids in this state,” board President Dunbar Brooks said. “And as a result of that, nothing changed.”

Mr. Brooks said the testing program and the senior project option are “not a panacea.” Many board members and other supporters of the testing program noted the tests merely establish a minimum standard.

“This is not about setting the bar where we see it in China,” said University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who testified before the board. “This is at the basic level.”

Nearly half the states require students to pass some form of standardized test to graduate, and several offer a senior project as an alternative, but Mrs. Grasmick said Maryland’s program is more rigorous than many.

“We think this is a unique design and actually a very strong one,” she said.

State education officials developed the senior-project option out of concern that a small percentage of students, including those with learning disabilities and English-language learners, may struggle to pass the tests even though they possess sufficient mastery of the subjects.

Ronald A. Peiffer, deputy superintendent for academic policy, estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 students in the class of 2009 would do the senior project — roughly 10 students for each of Maryland’s 240 public high schools.

To become eligible for the projects, students must meet all other requirements for graduation — including passing grades in their courses, adequate attendance and completing service-learning requirements.

Students get as many as five chances per year to take the tests, and those who struggle are given tutoring and other services.

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