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Washington Co. graduates not thwarted by new requirement

June 13, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A new graduation requirement for Maryland students did not keep any Washington County Public Schools students from receiving their diplomas this year.

This was the first year graduating seniors had to meet the requirements for the High School Assessments (HSA), which test students' proficiency in algebra, English, biology and government.

Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said all but 11 of this year's seniors met the graduation requirement -- about 99.3 percent of the 1,532 graduating seniors expected to receive high school diplomas. Students not working toward a high school diploma, but rather a certificate, are not included in that group.

Morgan said the 11 students who did not meet the graduation requirement would not have received diplomas regardless of HSA performance based on other factors, such as grades or class credits.

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Maryland Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard said 55,000 students statewide were expected to graduate this year. Of those, 1,460 had not passed the HSA requirement as of May 15.

Reinhard said that number has been reduced by nearly half since then, but an exact count had not been taken.

Avenues to completion

In order to receive a high school diploma in Maryland, students must pass the HSA in one of several ways.

The first, and most common, is to get a combined score of 1,602 on the four exams, Reinhard said.

Students can take the HSA exams four times throughout the school year, and they can take the tests multiple times. Students can begin taking the tests after they complete the related courses. For instance, an eighth-grader who finishes algebra can take the algebra exam.

After a student has failed one of the tests twice, he or she has the option of using what is known as the "bridge plan," Reinhard said. Students who choose that option are required to complete a project designed to show knowledge in the subject area.

In Washington County, 31 students in the graduating class of 2009 used the bridge plan to complete their HSA requirement.

"One of the things that we've been hearing is that the bridge plan projects are difficult and take a lot of time," Reinhard said. "(Students tell us) it's so much easier to study for the test and pass it than to do this. That's what we hope."

In a handful of cases, students are granted waivers, exempting them from the HSA requirement, Reinhard said. Waivers are reserved for students who transfer to a Maryland school midway through their high school career, have missed long periods of school due to illness, have language difficulties, have special needs or for other reasons, he said.

In Washington County, two students in the graduating class of 2009 used waivers, said Donna Hanlin, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

Officials initially identified six students who qualified for waivers, but four of those students passed the HSA exams.

On a 10th-grade level

Morgan called the success of Washington County students in meeting the graduation requirement "astounding."

"I think that it was a major accomplishment," she said. "It's a high-stakes test ... high-stakes requirement."

Morgan also was pleased with the low number of students who met the requirement using the bridge plan or waiver.

"If anyone was worried that anyone was watering down standards, it didn't happen," she said.

The HSA exams test students on a 10th-grade level, which Morgan said is the minimum students should have learned before graduation.

"It is not enough," but it ensures to the taxpayer that students are graduating with a minimum 10th-grade high school skills in reading, writing, math, science and social studies," she said. "I think we owe that to the taxpayer to give that guarantee of minimum levels."

J.D. Repp, a recent graduate of Clear Spring High School, said he found the government and biology HSA exams to be easy, but the English exam was more of a challenge.

The exams "tell how well you take a test, not what you know," he said.

Adam Lipella, who also graduated from Clear Spring this year, said the English exam was "ambiguous" and should be thrown out.

Ray Franks said he and most of his friends had passed the exams by the end of their sophomore years -- when most students have taken the HSA exams.

"I just saw it as another test," Franks said.

Stephanie Foust, a Clear Spring graduate, said the new graduation requirement was stressful at first, but students soon discovered the tests were easy.

"I don't think anyone had any trouble with them," Foust said.

"Students are passing this test," Reinhard said. "It is not an undue burden for them, and ... as (Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick) likes to say, there won't be any fraudulent diplomas. There aren't going to be students who graduate from a Maryland high school unable to do basic math, basic science, basic English.

"It stands to reason that our students should know these things. And it turns out they do."

Bridge plan

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