The state Board of Education's decision to let some students graduate in 2009 without passing the mandatory high school assessments tests is a bow to practical realities, but it shouldn't become the norm or weaken Maryland's commitment to higher standards."Practical realities" should be read as code for "lacking backbone" among educational and policy leaders for backing down on the program they implemented to increase the standards and make the high school diploma in Maryland mean something.
This is the first academic year in which the tests are mandatory for graduation, and a relative handful of the state's 55,000 seniors are in danger of not getting their diplomas in June because they either haven't taken the tests or have failed in one or more subjects. The board's decision lets them apply for a waiver if they fulfill all the other requirements for graduation and can show they couldn't pass the tests for reasons beyond their control.
About 4,000 students potentially fall into that category. Some are students new to the system who are not native English speakers and haven't yet achieved enough proficiency in the language to take the courses or pass the test. Others are special education students whose programs aren't geared to the exams.
A high school diploma is a path to a better standard of living and should not be awarded from simply showing up. I undertand that non-English speakers may need additional time or help to pass the courses, but that should be an incentive to keep them for another year and/or really help them. The state also runs into a definitional problem, i.e., what is the length of time for which a waiver could be granted? Is one year in the system enough time? Two years? Three years?
But you also run into something of an equal protection argument as well. Let's take two groups of students who, at least would be nominally permitted a "not enough time in the system" waiver. Immigrants and out-of-staters who move into the country. Let's take an immigrant from say Africa, who moves to Maryland as a junior in high school. They are a non-native English speaker and would need time to complete the necessary courses in order to pass the exam. Rather than keeping that student longer, the state grants a waiver for the graduation exams. Fine, if that is the policy. But what of someone whose parents are in the military and are stationed in Maryland (say at Ft. Meade) for that student's senior year. This student doesn't pass the exams, should they be granted a waiver as well? What about students who are native English speakers, say from Great Britain or Australia? Should they be granted a waiver as well?
The problem with the waiver (outside of special education waivers), what is a permissible waiver and what is not? Better to not grant waivers and require the passage of the exams to get the diploma.
The practical reality is more of a political failing and a desire not to face that failing reality. The concept of the high school assessments was that by the time they would be required to graduate, Maryland schools would have improved enough to make the passage a fairly easy exercise for nearly every student. The practial reality, though, is taht schools, particularly in the poorer, minority sections of Baltimore and Prince George's County, have not improved enough and the consequence is that most students there are not equipped to pass the exam. The granting of waivers under any circumstances is not a reflection of the conditions beyond the control of the student, but a means for the state and the public education system to overlook their own shortcomings and failings. If they grant a waiver of the exam requirement, then the public schools don't have to take responsibility to correct their failure to prepare a student adequately to take the exam. That is the practical ("political") reality here, an inability to actually face up to the systems many failings.