- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Students in Maryland again scored dismally on high school competency examinations last year, according to results posted recently by the state Education Department.

Officials say they expect no improvement until it becomes a graduation requirement to pass the tests.

About half of 65,000 students failed the algebra and biology tests in 2003 — about the same rate as in 2002. Four in 10 failed government, and six in 10 failed English, including a large majority of poor and minority students and those with disabilities.

Officials posted the results without notice on the Education Department’s Web site Christmas week. Gary Heath, the state testing chief, said the state wasn’t trying to hide the poor results.

“We’re putting all kinds of data on the site as it becomes available,” Mr. Heath told the Baltimore Sun. “This just happened to be the time for the [High School Assessments].”

Mr. Heath said the flat scores between 2002 and 2003 didn’t surprise him. Those were the first two years the tests were mandatory — but still not tied to graduation.

“The history of other states is that, absent consequences [for failing], it’s too early for us to expect improvements,” he said.

Last month, the state Board of Education gave preliminary approval for the new tests to officially count with the class of 2009, this year’s seventh-graders. But that could change as state officials prepare the regulations governing the “exit tests.”

Students struggled most with the English exam in 2003. “From our preliminary look at the numbers, English is the hardest test for students with limited English proficiency, special-ed children and poor children,” Mr. Heath said.

Statewide, 40 percent of students achieved the minimum scores that have been established as “passing” on the English test — but 14 percent of black males did so. In Baltimore, where the overall English passing rate was 18 percent — a 7 percentage point decline from 2002 — only three of 571 students in special education succeeded on the test.

And 17 percent of students whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced-price lunches passed the English test, down from 22 percent in 2002.

The state board voted last month to require special education students to take the new tests, but excused them from having to pass in order to earn a diploma.

Many area educators said they hadn’t seen the results of the exams, taken last January and May.

In Anne Arundel County, minority students lost more ground than white students. School officials in the county have vowed to reduce performance disparities by 2007.

Anne Arundel administrators said they will work with principals on problems at individual schools. They said two years’ worth of scores aren’t enough to establish trends.

“But it does point to areas that we have to focus on,” said Superintendent Eric Smith, who was concerned about the increased failure rate among minorities.

“We don’t have time to waste,” said Mr. Smith, adding that he’s confident the racial achievement gap will close in coming years.

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