Written by Patricia Hawke for

For decades, graduating Baltimore Schools seniors have had to show that they have met or exceeded their school’s educational requirements, typically in the form of a standardized test such as the SAT or ACT. Many school districts have adopted tests that have been designed by their state’s DOE (Department of Education). While lots of kids do well on these types of assessments, there are thousands who do not; and it’s not because they haven’t learned what they should but because they are poor test-takers. Some kids lack the skills necessary to take a standardized test successfully. Others simply freeze up. Their nerves get to them, and they cannot think clearly and fail the test or at least get a score that doesn’t truly reflect what they’ve learned.
The leaders of Baltimore County Public Schools, in partnership with the rest of the state of Maryland, have finally realized that there is more than one way to assess a student’s success in school. For at least the last 5 years, Baltimore Schools have been telling their students that they must pass four High School Assessments by the end of their senior year of high school to graduate and get that diploma. The assessments taken by Baltimore Schools students are in algebra, biology, American government, and English. The problems with this blanket policy are obvious. Teachers in the Baltimore Schools spend 13 years of a student’s educational career doing their best to give them the type of Baltimore Schools learning experiences they need the most. For example, students who need extra help with Math, speak a language other than English, or those who would benefit from the challenge of a tougher writing class. Students must be held accountable to the same standards, but they don’t all learn the same way, and it’s not fair to test them all the same.
Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says that Baltimore Schools students who repeatedly fail the exams will be allowed to do a senior project instead. The proposal was made in response to the fact that a minimum of 2,000 students across the state in the Class of 2009 may not graduate because of their poor performance on the state tests. Baltimore Schools students have quite a while to take and pass the tests; if they fail one or two, they can retake it. Under this new plan, for example, Baltimore Schools students who pass two of the four tests could do their senior projects in the subjects they’ve failed. Grasmick insists that the project will be rigorous, and would require the Baltimore Schools student’s entire senior year to complete.
Detractors say that by telling Baltimore Schools students they don’t have to pass the exams will mean that they won’t take them seriously. Also of concern is that the students in Baltimore Schools must fail before they can take advantage of this alternative means of assessment. Students and their Baltimore Schools teachers should be given a choice in the type of assessments would best reflect what they have learned. Most, if not all, teachers keep portfolios on a student’s work throughout the school year, with the purpose of assessing a student’s progress.