ANNAPOLIS – While Maryland students continue to improve their scores on standardized tests, state educators are increasingly worried that graduation rates for minority students will plummet once the exams are used for diploma requirements in 2009.
What has educators concerned is minority student scores on a test measuring 10th-grade reading proficiency.
More than 50 percent of African-American and Hispanic students statewide taking the Maryland School Assessment fell into the “basic” category — those unable to read and comprehend grade-appropriate literature — while just 20 percent of their white and Asian peers did, according to statistics from the Maryland State Department of Education.
“We have had longstanding gaps with African-American and Hispanic students. It is very worrisome and very difficult to change groups like that over time,” said Ron Pfeiffer, deputy state superintendent for academic policies. “Most frequently it is not African-American students that are aren’t doing well – it is the students that are poor.”
Montgomery County minority students saw the most improvement on the High School English test this year: 42.2 percent of African-Americans passed, up from 28.2 percent last year, and 43.8 percent of Hispanic students passed, up from 31.6 percent.
But on almost every test — students must take exams in English, algebra, biology and government, among others — more than 80 percent of their white and Asian American peers passed.
“We feel we have a lot of cause for celebration right now. But there are still gap issues that we will face and try to move forward with,” said Terry Alban, director of the Montgomery County schools shared accountability department. “These groups are going to be highly impacted when this becomes a graduation requirement.”
Most counties are seeing the same trend.
Little more than half of Howard County’s African-American students passed the High School English test, while white and Asian students once again reached 80 percent.
In Prince George’s County, African-American students improved by 16 percentage points on the English test, but just 35.7 percent passed; 69.5 percent of their white peers passed.
Even in smaller jurisdictions such as Caroline County, white students passed the High School English test at twice the rate of African-American students and at more than four times the rate of Hispanic students.
Beginning in 2009, passing the exams will be required to receive a diploma. School officials will come up with a number this fall representing the minimum cumulative test score required to graduate.
State administrators said they believe the scores will continue to improve each year as students and teachers begin to take the test more seriously. If scores don’t improve, jurisdictions with higher minority populations may have something to worry about.
In Baltimore City, 88.3 percent of enrolled students as of Sept. 30, 2003, were African-American. And at the end of the 2003-2004 school year only 54 percent of the city’s seniors graduated on time.
“Our expectation is that significant progress will continue to be made in the months ahead as we continue our reforms and fine-tune our curriculum,” said Patricia L. Welch, Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners chair in a statement released Tuesday.
The average state graduation rate was 84.3 percent.
In comparison, Frederick County, a place where 85.7 percent of students are white or Asian American, 94.7 percent of seniors graduate on time — the highest graduation rate in the state.
Pfieffer is optimistic about the increased funding mandated by Thornton — Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s extensive education reform plan — to address poor students. The fiscal year 2006 budget not only takes into account population, but also considers the number of students qualifying as special education, limited English proficient or receiving free-and-reduced-priced meals. Most of the students in these categories are poor and are minorities, said Pfeiffer.