Sixth-graders this year will be the first Maryland students who must meet tougher passing standards on statewide high school English and math exams to graduate in 2024.
The new standard set by the state school board this week rolls back more aggressive requirements put in place about a year ago. Board members said they had little choice, given that about 60 percent of students are failing the tests.
"The challenge is to find the right balance between a target for high school graduation that is rightly ambitious … and a target that is frankly fantasy," said school board member David Steiner.
Some educators, including Steiner, are worried that even once the new standard takes effect many of the state's students will be unable to earn a diploma, or will use an alternative method to graduate.
"It is an aspirational standard at this point, and it is a heavy lift," said Russell Brown, chief accountability officer for the Baltimore County school system, who welcomed the deadline's delay.
Brown said current sixth-grade students will be better prepared for the standardized tests because they will have have had more years learning under the Common Core curriculum. Introduced statewide in 2013, the curriculum is more difficult than past standards.
Until 2024, students will need to score a three or better on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — PARCC — tests in Algebra I and 10th-grade English to be eligible to graduate.
The PARCC tests are scored on a scale of one to five. A score of four is considered passing and indicates that a student will be ready to do college-level work or to get a job that can sustain a family. A score of five is considered advanced.
In passing the new standard, the school board reversed a decision last year that would have gradually raised the raw score needed to merit passing the test each year.
For many years, students have also needed to pass American government and science tests.
The Maryland State Education Association, a union representing the majority of the state's teachers, doesn't support such high-stakes testing as a bar for graduation.
"Educators strongly disagree with tying PARCC scores to graduation requirements," said Betty Weller, the union's president. "We know that a student's PARCC score is not an accurate reflection of their educational experience or ability to contribute to society."
She believes that the PARCC test is "an arbitrary standard that was set by a private testing company."
State school board members debated for several months over whether to allow students to graduate with a score of three rather than four.
Steiner said most states, like Maryland, have a high school graduation rate above 80 percent. But only 40 percent of Maryland students could pass the PARCC tests
"So you are looking at a 40-point gap," Steiner said.
Even if students made enormous progress in the next six years, he said, it would be hard to imagine 80 percent of students passing the tests.
Andrew Smarick, chair of the state school board, voted against the new proposal. He said parents should understand that earning a diploma with a score of three on the exams may mean their children aren't ready for college.
He said the board voted to examine whether the state ought to award two different diplomas, one for students who pass their tests with a four, and a second for students who simply pass their high school courses.
Smarick said there is no consensus on the board about the possibility of such a two-tiered diploma.
They agreed only to look at what other states are doing. Some school board members are concerned that two different diplomas could lead to tracking of low-income students into fewer high-level classes.
The board also decided to scrutinize students' use of a so-called bridge project to graduate if they don't pass the tests. The alternative path to graduation has been available for years.
It requires students to do a project under the supervision of a teacher that proves they have learned the concepts that are being tested. About 35 percent of the state's graduates complete a bridge project.
A number of school board members said they believe the projects require less of students.
Smarick said nearly everyone on the board is "worried or upset about just how many kids, especially in the low-income districts, are graduating with bridge projects. ... Members are pretty alarmed."
Steiner said he believes students will gradually begin to live up to the higher standard, but until that time the board cannot set the bar too high.
"Politically," he said, "it is not conceivable in any state that a high school graduation rate would go below 70 percent."