- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

The Montgomery County school board yesterday voted to drop eighth-grade standardized tests for its students and turned down an application for the proposed Jaime Escalante Charter School.
State schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick last week gave school districts the option of not administering the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test for eighth-graders. Yesterday the school board recommended that Mrs. Grasmick also pursue a federal waiver that would suspend MSPAP in third and fifth grades next year and create tests providing individual student data.
"The state superintendent announced last week that we could voluntarily drop the eighth-grade tests and the board agreed wholeheartedly," said schools spokesman Brian Porter.
He said the board believed the MSPAPs were not providing data for "realistic school reform" and wants a system that provides individual results the MSPAPs currently are used only to judge schools, and each student does not get an individual score. "The board has been urging the state to move up its time schedule to achieve that," he said.
Mrs. Grasmick had said the state would consider significant changes in elementary and middle school tests. But in a letter sent Monday to school districts, she asked them to delay taking final action pending discussions between the state and federal government.
County sources said the board's vote allows the school system the flexibility to act on the state's final decision whenever it comes.
Montgomery has strongly opposed the MSPAPs since its scores dropped by 4.4 points on the tests administered in 2001. Scores from several other counties, including Prince George's, also dropped inexplicably, although three independent surveys of the tests found nothing wrong with the scoring and grading system.
Responding to the criticism, Mrs. Grasmick told counties last week that they would not be required to administer the eighth-grade test this year. She also promised to create a grading system that will provide individual data to students.
Earlier yesterday, the school board voted to deny the application for the Jaime Escalante Charter School, which according to its founders would have served low-scoring, minority students in the county. The board also called for a review of the county's charter schools policy, passed in 1999.
While rejecting the resolution, some members cited a lack of funds to pay for such a school at this time. Others said it would only duplicate existing programs in the county's public schools.
"We cannot afford a charter school now … for the next year or so at least, it will be difficult to have one in the county," said board Chairman Reginald M. Felton, who voted to deny the application.
The founders of Escalante said they were not surprised at the outcome. "We knew this was going to happen. This has been clear all along," said Joseph Hawkins, president of the Escalante board. He said the board's consideration of the proposal for the last two years had been a "sham."
The charter school proposed having longer school days, dropping the principal to cut costs, and eliminating a football team to keep a tight focus on academics. Founders say they were willing to foot all costs for the school beyond the per-pupil allocation provided by the school system, and had received the backing of the National Council of La Raza, a nonprofit organization working for Hispanic Americans to obtain startup funds and loans for a school building.
Ines Cifuentes, vice president of the Escalante board, said she was "seriously concerned" that large numbers of black and Hispanic students were not passing the Maryland functional tests. "The county is not being supportive of these children in the way they need to achieve," she said.
Mr. Hawkins said it appears as if the only way a charter school could open in Maryland is if the state created a charter law. Maryland is one of 14 states in the country without a charter school law. At least two bills have been offered during this session of the General Assembly, but they are given little chance of being approved.
Board member Nancy J. King said the proposed charter would have only duplicated programs already running in public schools. "It still smacks too much of being a private school with public school funding," she said.
"I did think that the [Escalante] program was a viable program. It had the potential for the school system to improve parent outreach," said board member Sharon W. Cox, adding that the only reason she voted against the application was the shortage of funds.
The Escalante proposal first came up for vote in October, but the board delayed a resolution, asking the founders to find suitable facilities and separate its middle and high schools, locating both in existing secondary school facilities.

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