School Officials Mulling Graduation Tied To Exams

BERLIN – Dozens of Worcester County high school juniors were getting a second chance, or a third chance in some cases, this week to retake rigorous Maryland High School Assessment (HSA) exams, the passage of which is supposed to be a requirement for their graduation next year, but the debate continues about success on the tests tied to receiving a diploma.

Many in Worcester County’s Class of 2009 plugged away on HSA exams this week, just like their counterparts across Maryland. For some, it was the second or third chance to pass any or all of the tests tied to graduation. All the while, state Board of Education officials are mulling a decision about whether to deny diplomas next year to thousands of high school students who can’t pass the exams.

There are 66,000 members of the Class of 2009 in Maryland, and depending on what figures one relies on, as many as 32 percent have not passed the HSA exams required for graduation next year. The Class of 2009 is the first to be required to pass the exams as a condition of graduation next year, but with as many as one-third failing to meet the new standard, the state school board is reconsidering the proposal.

The intent of the exams is to provide an opportunity for students on schedule to graduate next year to illustrate they have a firm grasp of the course work in four core subjects. The concept is part of a nationwide plan to make passing the exams a requirement for graduation next year, but with thousands of students failing to pass the tests, many states have abandoned the requirement and others are seeking alternatives.

Maryland falls into the latter category, with a proposal on the table from State Superintendent Dr. Nancy Grasmick to allow those high school juniors who fail to pass any or all of the exams as many as three times to meet the requirement through the completion of an extensive senior project next year. Grasmick’s plan would allow thousands of high school juniors who fail to past the HSA exams to illustrate they have a firm grasp on their course work by completing a rigorous senior project.

Of course, Worcester County must follow whatever the state school board decides, but there is support for the superintendent’s proposal on the local level, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes. Andes said this week Worcester high school juniors have outpaced the state averages in terms of passing the HSA exams, but local school officials would gladly accept the senior project alternative.

“We believe the superintendent’s proposal is a good one,” he said. “Not all students can demonstrate they have a firm grasp on their course work through success on standard exams. Some students simply aren’t good test-takers, which does not mean they don’t know the subject matter.”

Out of the roughly 560 juniors in Worcester’s three county high schools, 88 percent have passed the HSA exam in algebra and 81 percent have passed the biology exam. Another 84 percent have passed the U.S. government exam while just 76 percent have passed the English HSA exam, which is given in the 10th grade.

Andes said those who don’t pass the exams the first, or even second, time around are given every opportunity to pass the tests including after-school and during-school remediation session and summer school tutoring sessions. Worcester County exceeds the state averages in each of the four disciplines, but school officials are not resting on their laurels.

“We want 100 percent of our high school juniors to pass these exams,” he said. “We won’t be satisfied until we reach 100 percent.”

Nonetheless, the local school board is supporting Grasmick’s plan for the senior project as an alternative.

“At their meeting in September, the state school board was very divisive on this issue,” said Andes. “We’re not sure how this is going to go, but we are preparing as if nothing is going to change.”