Maryland schools need tiered diplomas

Nov. 14, 2006, midnight | By Jordan Fein | 17 years, 3 months ago

This editorial represents the views of the Silver Chips editorial board.

Last year, 284 English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students attended Blair — more than any other school in Montgomery County. Had the Maryland State Department of Education's (MSDE) new requirement, which mandates that every student pass the English, Government, Biology and Algebra HSAs, been in effect last year, only nine of Blair's ESOL students — a mere 3.2 percent — would have been eligible to graduate.

Many high school students will not be able to graduate after the requirement goes into effect with the class of 2009, as evidenced by previous passing rates, teacher testimony and school systems' own acknowledgements. In order to prevent the impending crisis of sending thousands more students off into the world without the vocational advantage a high school diploma provides, empty assertions like "We want every child to graduate," as MSDE spokesman Bill Reinhard proclaimed, are not enough.

Instead of implementing the new graduation requirement, the MSDE should consider adopting a tiered graduation system modeled after the New York State public schools' Regents Program in which different diplomas are awarded based on varying levels of academic achievement.

Under this plan, students who pass all four HSAs and score above a certain higher level would earn an Honors Diploma, students who pass all four tests at the minimum level would receive a Regular Diploma, and students who pass only two would graduate with an Associate Diploma.

The MSDE has begun developing substitute exams, the "Modified HSAs," and alternate assessments, the "Comparable HSAs" but states on its web site that some of these "should be available" by 2007 and that others "would follow." Accommodations for ESOL and special needs students should not be an afterthought only considered after requirements are put into place.

The difficulty that ESOL and special needs students face in passing standardized tests designed for on-level students is well documented. According to the 2005 MCPS Annual Report on our Call to Action, the average HSA passing percentages of ESOL and special needs students were 32 and 31, respectively, much lower than the average for all students: 65 percent. Only 22 percent of ESOL students passed the English HSA. Had the new graduation requirement already been in effect, at least 78 percent of ESOL students would not have graduated from high school.

Unlike ESOL students, special needs students with "significant disabilities who are unable to participate in regular testing" may take an Alternative HSA in order to graduate, according to the MSDE. That the MSDE failed to recognize limited English proficiency as a disability with respect to HSAs and grant ESOL students the same accommodation is perplexing. That the MSDE has also ignored ESOL and special needs students who could potentially not graduate, however, completely defies comprehension.

To address this issue, the MSDE should not abolish the requirement altogether because it does encourage improved participation in and better performance on HSAs. Instead, the MSDE should emulate the Regents System, which acknowledges that not all students have the same academic abilities through the accommodations it makes for ESOL and special needs students.

In New York, these students may take Regents Competency Tests (instead of the Comprehensive Regents Exams), testify before a panel in order to demonstrate their knowledge of a particular subject or compile a portfolio of their relevant work. Hopefully, the promised alternatives to the HSAs will still gauge student knowledge but would be much more effective for ESOL and special needs students.

ESOL resource teacher Joseph Bellino worries that many of his students will leave high school without a diploma. The nine ESOL students who were eligible for graduation last year would only have received their diplomas if they also passed the three other HSAs. Bellino estimates that if students were motivated to do well on the HSAs by a graduation requirement, more than half would be able to pass them. This is a step in the right direction, but the other half of ESOL students could be left without a tangible acknowledgement of their education. Students cannot repeat senior year, so failing students will be forced to leave school without a diploma. Many ESOL students, some of whom also hold down a job to provide for their families, would be unable to get a General Equivalency Degree because of the financial cost and time commitment required.

In the face of this evidence, the MSDE and MCPS offer only rhetoric. "More attention is needed for ESOL and special needs students," reads the 2005 MCPS Annual Report. Other times, they fail even to provide the usual empty promises. An MSDE document titled "High School Graduation Questions and Answers," which ostensibly addresses the new HSA requirement, lacks any mention of special provisions for ESOL students.

Reinhard's goal — that every Maryland student graduates from high school — is ambitious, but he thinks it is possible. He says students have multiple opportunities each year to pass each HSA, and teachers provide additional instruction to those who struggle with the tests. But for ESOL and special needs students who may not learn the necessary test material until junior or even senior year, if ever, there are fewer chances to take the tests and even less time for teachers to help them.

A tiered diploma system would reward academically proficient students without putting others at a disadvantage. It's time for the MSDE and MCPS to realize that ESOL and special needs students are their responsibility, too.

Jordan Fein. Jordan Fein is a magnet senior (woot!) who is enamored of politics and journalism. He is very politically active and enjoys talking politics with whomever is willing. Politics, politics, politics. He is looking forward to his second year of writing on Silver Chips and especially … More »

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