State urged to drop exit test

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ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Maryland families are urging state lawmakers to change or repeal legislation that will require exit exams for high-school seniors to receive a diploma.

“It started as a whisper, and now it’s growing into a roar,” said Delegate Justin D. Ross, Prince George’s Democrat. “People are very concerned about these tests.”

The class of 2009 will be the first to take the Maryland High School Assessment exams in algebra, biology, English and government. And those who don’t pass will not receive a diploma.

The requirements were established in 2000, when Maryland joined a national trend of requiring exit exams. The premise was that diplomas will become a guarantee that students know certain things. But with the pass-to-graduate deadline looming — and no lesser diploma or attendance certificate for students who don’t pass despite several attempts — legislators are hearing more calls to modify or drop the exam requirements.

Mr. Ross has sponsored a bill requiring a small change to the state testing — that scores are promptly returned to schools. At least two other bills are pending that would modify or dismantle the requirement.

One would bar the state Board of Education from requiring the tests to graduate. Another would allow the tests to be used as a measure of whether students should get diplomas but would require schools also to use other measures such as grades.

At a recent hearing to consider changes to the testing requirement, parents who packed the room said the tests are unfair and a poor measure of whether students should receive diplomas.

“What will happen to all these students who don’t pass?” asked Kitty Hollister, mother of a 15-year-old in Wheaton who is dyslexic but still required to pass the exams.

State educators do not appear to want to make changes.

“We’re extremely encouraged and have confidence in our kids that they can pass these tests,” state public schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said before the hearing. “Without requirements, no high school student will take this seriously. We believe that the high school diploma should mean something.”

Sponsors of the bill to remove the exam requirement say the tests shouldn’t bar graduation until every Maryland public school offers the same caliber of education. Discrepancies in class size, for example, can affect how well students perform on tests, said Delegate Jay Walker, a Prince George’s Democrat who wants the testing requirement changed.

“How can we mandate a statewide testing structure when we know all students are not playing on a level playing field?” he asked at the hearing.

In struggling schools, Mr. Walker said, the testing requirement only forces teachers to spend all day preparing students for exams.

To complaints that teachers spend too much time preparing for the exams, supporters of the new requirement say the test gauges mastery of the state curriculum, so preparing for them is just teachers doing what they should be doing.

“I always use this analogy: You need cardiac surgery. You’re laying on the table, waiting for open-heart surgery. You ask the surgeon, ‘Did you pass your boards?’ And he says, ‘No, I did not. But I’m a good surgeon,’ ” Mrs. Grasmick said.

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