By RICK DOCKSAI, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE - Students who cannot pass new high school graduation tests will still be able to get their diplomas by completing research projects instead, the Maryland State Board of Education voted Wednesday.
The board voted 8-4 to accept Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick's "Bridge Plan for Academic Validation," which would let students who fail one or more of the four required high school assessment tests to demonstrate their proficiency in those subjects with research projects.
Students who graduate in 2009 and after will now have to pass all four assessment tests—in algebra, biology, English and government—or, under Grasmick's plan, complete a supervised research project in the subjects they failed.
Supporters praised the plan as an opportunity for students who do not test well to prove their abilities in another way.
"We've heard from some students that they freeze when they do tests but they do well in the classroom. This plan allows them to show how they perform without the added pressure of taking the tests," said board member Beverly Cooper. "I think it's important to catch that group."
But some board members wondered if this might be the wrong kind of help.
Rosa Garcia gave an impassioned speech Wednesday for more stringent standards that would push students to raise their scores, rather than alternatives to passing. She recalled her own life as the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first person in her family to graduate from college.
"There is no way that I would have gotten to where I am today without rigor. There is no way I would have gotten to where I am today without access to high-quality education," she said.
She cautioned fellow board members to make sure that students who need additional help are getting it.
"I would have serious concerns about rushing into a decision until we have looked at all those areas carefully," she said.
Garcia said she was skeptical that all students who resort to a research project would get good supervision.
"We don't have comprehensive interventions across the state. Not all students have access to tutors and instructors who can help," she said after the hearing.
The vote on Grasmick's plan followed a failed attempt by board member Blair Ewing to delay a vote on the proposal until next September and to put off implementation until fall 2010.
"I think it's not timely," Ewing said. "I think it doesn't give us the time we need to make sure that the supports are there."
A gathering of school superintendents, however, testified to the board Tuesday that now would be as good a time as any.
Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Joe Hairston said that disadvantaged children would be the ones to benefit.
"Even with the best intervention, we know that we have some students who will need additional ways to demonstrate proficiency," he said. "The bridge plan provides another way."
Cecil County Schools Superintendent Carl Roberts said Wednesday that he hoped the need for Grasmick's plan would decrease with time as more students pass their tests.
"As we become more familiar with the HSAs, instruction will be more aligned, and students will be more comfortable taking the assessments," he said.
At present, 7,000 Maryland juniors have yet to pass the algebra assessment. But the state Department of Education estimates that no more than 3,000 students are in danger of failing to pass all of their required tests before graduation.
Students can retake a test up to five times a year.
"We expect the numbers (of students failing tests) to be fairly minimal once they've had more opportunities to take them," said Bill Reinhard, a Department of Education spokesman.