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Maryland State school board approves HSA alternative

Monty Neill Comment: The Maryland Board of Education had a choice: remove or delay the graduation test; keep with the project option; keep it without a project option.

Note that the graduation test will now be all multiple choice, based on an earlier board decision. So after having their courses inevitably reduced to drill and kill for a multiple choice test, a very limited number of students will be told they can do a project.

This bodes badly for Maryland students. The students who will suffer most from this accountability will be low income, minority group children. They will attend under-resourced schools, meaning Maryland (like dozens of other states) is willing to put accountability on the backs of children, without the adults (read, governments) providing them the resources needed to succeed. Of course, "success" is trivialized by its definition as a multiple choice test.

Aside from the Board members, the students who lose out can thank Education Trust, Achieve, corporate groups, and a group of district superintendents who fought to keep the graduation test. The supers seemed to be mostly OK with the project.

Yes, at least some MD students will not unfairly and irrationally be denied a diploma because the project option will be available. But the pressure to reduce schooling to test prep can now continue uninterrupted, with a little nod to the project side. And many kids in those underfunded schools will continue to wonder, why bother? The system tells me every day it does not care, now they put in a test barrier.

by Marcus Moore |

BALTIMORE ΓΆ€” The state school board on Wednesday approved an academic
alternative for students struggling to pass the high school
assessment tests, creating another avenue for those students to earn
a diploma.

Beginning with the Class of 2009 ΓΆ€” this year's juniors ΓΆ€” students
must pass four tests in algebra, government, English and biology ΓΆ€” or
now an alternative project ΓΆ€” to get a diploma.
With the 8-4 vote, all of the state's 24 school systems must develop
a project for students in danger of not graduating from high school.

The Maryland State Department of Education will design the criteria
for the alternative project, but each school system will develop the

The plan, promoted by state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, is
being piloted in Prince George's, Talbot and Howard counties.

Students will be eligible for the alternative HSA option only if they
meet minimum class credits, community service and attendance
requirements by the end of their junior year.

They also must have taken courses and failed one or more of the HSA
tests at least twice. After failing the tests, students are required
to take free intervention courses, aimed at helping them pass. If
they still fail the tests, students could work with an adviser on the
alternative project.

Administrators across the state have criticized the plan to create an
alternative to the HSAs, saying it would create a second-tier
diploma. Others counter that minorities, limited-English speakers and
special-education students would fail the tests and not graduate.

While Prince George's Superintendent John E. Deasy said he supports
the plan, there will be a lot more work ahead for teachers overseeing
the student projects.

``It might be evenings, it might be the summer ... it's very
premature to say," he said.

Deasy, who supports nontraditional paths to graduation, stressed that
the alternative must be as demanding as the exit exams.

``I think it'll be a help to a small number of students who need a
vehicle ... where they can demonstrate mastery of subject matters,"
he said. ``I think it's really important to provide a secondary road
for youth who have not demonstrated it on the primary road."

Although the plan was approved 8-4, Wednesday's meeting was not
without controversy.

Board member Blair G. Ewing proposed delaying the vote and
implementing HSAs because all of his questions weren't answered. He
wanted the board to wait until January to vote on alternative HSA
plan, and postpone HSAs as a graduation requirement a year.

Ewing's proposal failed 8-4.

``We're not ready because the supports are not in place at the local
level," said Ewing of Silver Spring, a former Montgomery County
school board member. ``I have a grave concern that because the
infrastructure that students need is uneven and fragmented at local
levels. They're not there for every student ... that bothers me a
great deal."

Board member Mary Kay Finan agreed.

``I'm just concerned that these interventions are in place," said
Finan of Cumberland. ``If they're not, then we are responsible. We
need to be accountable to be sure that these interventions are in
place to help the students."

The high school assessment tests have endured a battery of
alterations since their inception.

In May, the state will phase out all written-response questions to
reduce the turnaround time on test scores.

In March, Grasmick proposed giving special-education students,
English language learners and students with physical or mental
impairments until 2011 to prepare for the tests. The exams are
aligned with regular curriculum, and those three groups of students
have not been exposed to regular classroom instruction, she argued.

Board member David F. Tufaro of Baltimore said while he's ``not a big
fan" of the alternative HSA project, the state board should move
forward because of support he has heard from school systems.

``I'm confident that the plan is a good way to go," said board member
J. Henry Butta of Davidsonville. ``I am absolutely convinced that
it's not a rush to judgment. I think we got something that's good for
the state of Maryland and I don't wanna lose it."

Not passing the alternative plan or the assessments would have
maintained a ``status quo" for struggling students and sent a message
to school systems that ``the school board doesn't care," said board
President Dunbar Brooks of Baltimore County.

``Is the HSA and [alternative] plan perfect? No," Brooks said. ``All
I'm saying is that the [alternative] plan and HSAs start us on a path
of where we need to be. We got lots and lots more work to do."

Staff Writer Dennis Carter contributed to this report.

— Marcus Moore
Baltimore Sun




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