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Maryland Will Require Exit Exam in 09

Ohanian Comment: Five--count-'em--5 types of diplomas proposed. And note, it is justified as preparing students for an increasingly demanding job market. Are they going to ship the graduates overseas once they have a diploma--to follow the jobs?

Maryland will require students to pass standardized tests before they can receive high school diplomas, starting with the Class of 2009.

State Board of Education members voted 9 to 2 yesterday to make Maryland's High School Assessments part of graduation requirements for students now in seventh grade and younger. They portrayed it as an effort to prepare graduates not only for college but also for an increasingly demanding job market.

The move puts Maryland among 19 states, including Virginia, that have mandated standardized exit exams. By 2009, about 30 states are expected to use such high-stakes testing, according to the Education Trust, a nonprofit group promoting student achievement.

Some board members said they voted to take the leap despite concerns that dropout rates will increase, particularly among poor and minority students. "I am petrified of doing this," said JoAnn T. Bell, the board's vice president, who voted for the measure. Others voiced concern about the implementation plan devised by state School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Under Grasmick's proposal, graduating students would receive one of five diplomas, depending on how many of the four High School Assessments they pass and whether they have a disability. But several board members criticized that approach yesterday, saying alternative diplomas could become a "dumping ground."

Grasmick said the plan is merely a starting point for discussion, and a final -- and possibly very different -- version will come before the board in May.

Almost a decade ago, a state task force recommended developing nearly a dozen standardized tests for high school students that would be required for graduation, with 2002 floated as a possible starting date. Officials delayed action several times, however, because of budget concerns and worries that students and teachers would not have enough time to adjust to the new system.

Grasmick said Maryland schools have reached "a tipping point." A voluntary state curriculum has been crafted to reflect what is on the tests. Teacher and principal training programs have been reviewed to make sure they are in sync with the tests. And the state promised, starting last year, to spend an extra $1.3 billion on education by 2008.

"Unless we make a decision, I think it's going to be extremely difficult . . . to move forward," she said.

Students now must pass the state's three "functional tests" in reading, writing and math to graduate, but the exams are considered so basic that most students take them in middle school. Under the new plan, students would have to pass the more rigorous tests in algebra, English, government and biology to get a full-fledged Maryland high school diploma. The tests would be given at the end of the respective courses, which are usually taken between eighth and 10th grades.

Students who fail could be tutored or take remedial classes. Students would be allowed to retake the tests about 10 times, officials said.

By senior year, those who have passed only three of the exams would receive an alternative local diploma. Special education students would also be required to take the state tests; those who do not pass at least three would receive another alternative diploma. Severely disabled students, some of whom may be exempted from the regular state tests, could work toward a certificate of completion. A fifth diploma would be created for students who drop out of school but earn a GED. Grasmick said the multiple diplomas provide "a backup opportunity" for students, specifically those with disabilities or who speak little English. But board members worried that the tiered system could result in schools tracking students toward specific diplomas, diminishing their value.

They also questioned whether students who fail the tests might be discouraged from seeking any diploma and simply drop out. "We've never generated the reality of what will happen when we do this," Bell said. "We are going to lose kids." Board members Dunbar Brooks (Baltimore) and John L. Wisthoff (Anne Arundel) voted against the measure.

Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, said that although states normally see a slight increase in their dropout rates the first year that exit exams are in place, there is no long-term link to the number of students who leave school. However, a report by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research organization, showed that students who do drop out are disproportionately poor, black or Latino.

Some states have backed away from high-stakes testing because too many students failed to graduate. In Nevada, for example, 12 percent of seniors who finished all of their course work did not receive diplomas this year because they did not pass the state's math test. In Florida, residents protested and threatened boycotts when nearly 13,000 students did not graduate when passing the state's tests became mandatory this year.

This school year is the first time that Virginia's exams, known as the Standards of Learning, are required for graduation. So far, nearly 3,000 of the more than 20,000 high school seniors in Northern Virginia have not passed all of the six tests they need to graduate. Students still have several chances to retake the tests. The District does not have an exit exam.

In Maryland, roughly half the students who took the first HSAs, given last year, passed each of the tests. Students performed best on the government test, with about 57 percent passing, and worst on the English test, with 45 percent passing. Results from this spring's tests will not be available for several weeks, a state spokesman said.

— Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post
Md. to Give Class of '09 Exit Exams




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