Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Exit exams, alternatives were poorly planned, board says

Recent changes in graduation requirement are unfair to students, superintendent says

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The state needs to rethink the High School Assessments and its test-free alternative because they were poorly planned and unduly stressful to this year’s juniors, who have to pass the tests to graduate, school leaders said Tuesday.

Beginning with the Class of 2009 — this year’s juniors — all students must pass four assessment tests in algebra, biology, English and government to earn a high school diploma. Students who have failed an assessment twice may instead complete a project to satisfy the state’s requirement.

In October, the state school board voted 8-4 to approve the mandate for all 24 school systems. Several school systems have applauded the tests and the alternative.

But not in Montgomery County, the state’s largest school system.

‘‘We’re not against accountability, and we’re not against the state, we’re against not giving a child a diploma when it’s not their fault,” Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said during Tuesday’s school board meeting in Rockville. ‘‘All I’m asking the state to do is slow down the process until [they] get it all worked out. Let’s don’t build a plane while you’re flying it. Let’s not create a system where they’re going to fail — not because they didn’t know — but because they didn’t have a chance.”

In defending the plan, state School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has said the Montgomery system is the only one in the state not on board with the tests and the alternative. She argues that the alternative is not for students, but another way that allows students to demonstrate mastery of a core subject.

‘‘If you look at the [alternative] plan, it is as rigorous or more rigorous than the assessment,” Grasmick told The Gazette in November. ‘‘I think the misinformation is that it’ll open a floodgate. A project doesn’t mean easier; it’s a different way of expressing mastery. ... It’s just a different vehicle for expressing knowledge.”

An estimated 718 juniors will have to complete at least one project to graduate, but the number could rise depending on May’s HSA scores, according to school system data. A total of 1,249 students took the May HSA after failing it once, the data show.

In their criticism of the exams, administrators are concerned that minorities, special education students and limited-English speakers would fail.

Of the 982 projects school leaders estimate will be taken, 466 will be completed by black students, 397 by special education students, and 332 by students receiving free and reduced meals.

School board member Patricia B. O’Neill served two years on a state task force that examined how other states assess their students.

‘‘It’s tremendously unfair for the Class of 2009 to have an essay-based test, when the Class of 2010 will have a different test,” said O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda. ‘‘It’s not very well thought out. We’re going to doom a lot of kids to problems. It’s gonna be a big problem for our students and staff.”

In December, the school board sent a letter to the state school board, Grasmick and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) expressing its displeasure with the HSAs and the alternative. The board recently agreed to write another letter to the state school board in July, when the new board members take their seats. In the new letter, the county board has agreed to be more specific about its concerns.