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NCLB Outrages

Deasy Questions Exam Alternatives; Change Could Make It Harder to Meet Federal Standards

Ohanian Comment: John E. Deasy is an alumnus of the Broad Superintendent Academy.

An alternative would be to do what's best for kids and get out of NCLB.

By Nelson Hernandez

Prince George's County Schools Superintendent John E. Deasy warned this week that Maryland's recent decision to offer alternatives to exams required to graduate from high school could have a "significant impact" on some schools' ability to meet federal academic standards.

Speaking to county school board members Thursday evening, Deasy said the state's moves could have the paradoxical effect of helping students graduate from high school yet hurting schools by giving students less of an incentive to pass the High School Assessments. Student performance on two of the four assessments -- algebra and English -- are used by the federal government to measure whether a high school is making "adequate yearly progress," known as AYP.

If a school repeatedly fails to make the federal standard, it faces corrective action, restructuring or a takeover by the state government under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The issue could affect the entire state, but it is especially serious in Prince George's, where eight of 22 high schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in the 2006-07 school year.

In interviews yesterday, state education officials said there were other changes in the works that would bolster schools' ability to meet the federal standard.

But as Deasy predicted Thursday that "more youth will graduate, and schools' AYP will drop," gasps could be heard in the school board's chamber in Upper Marlboro.

"Mr. Chair, we need to act fast," Pat Fletcher (District 3) told the board's vice chairman, Ron Watson (At Large). She urged the board to get state lawmakers to intervene.

"This is a huge deal," Watson said.

The High School Assessments have attracted mounting criticism from some state lawmakers and educational advocacy groups. Starting with the Class of 2009 -- this year's juniors -- all students will be required to pass exams in algebra, English, biology and government in order to graduate. As critics worried that hundreds or thousands of students could fail the exams and therefore not get diplomas, the Maryland State Board of Education adopted measures in October that would give students alternatives to passing all four tests.

One change would allow students to meet the requirement by earning a minimum combined score on the four tests. For example, a student who failed algebra could make up for it by doing especially well on biology.

The bigger change, known as the Bridge Plan, offers students who have failed the tests twice the opportunity to meet the requirement by completing projects that demonstrate mastery of the subject.

While these options would make it easier to meet the graduation requirement, neither of them contribute toward meeting the federal standards in algebra and English, Deasy warned. "We want to provide as many options for youth as possible, but the options in this case have the potential for significant impact on AYP," Deasy said.

School board member Rosalind Johnson (District 1) called the implications "terrifying."

"It's an educational Catch-22," Donna Hathaway Beck (At Large) said after the meeting. "You really can't win here."

Ronald A. Peiffer, the state's deputy superintendent for academic policy, said in an interview yesterday that the new alternatives would boost the graduation rate, which is another component of how schools measure adequate yearly progress.

Peiffer said the adoption of a modified set of tests for special-needs students also would bolster adequate yearly progress. Many schools that haven't made the federal standard have failed because students with special needs haven't been able to pass the tests.

Finally, Peiffer said that the state was changing how it calculated adequate yearly progress. Previously, freshmen who had taken the test for the first time were counted. The new system will measure 11th-graders -- a group that is considerably smaller than the freshman class -- and count their best score on the test toward whether or not the school makes AYP.

"In the end, these things might end up kind of maintaining our status for the next couple of years," Peiffer said. "We believe it's going to be much more attractive to a student to take the test and pass than go back and do the Bridge Plan."

— Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post


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