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Published in Print: May 12, 2004, as Md. Seeks New Way to Assess Special-Needs Students

Md. Seeks New Way to Assess Special-Needs Students

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Maryland is looking at ways to create an innovative, technology-based high school assessment for students who face disadvantages taking traditional paper-and-pencil tests.

The students who would likely use the test are those who have disabilities and cannot pass the state’s high school assessments, even with accommodations, but are performing at higher levels than students who receive a high school certificate of attendance instead of a diploma.

"What Maryland is trying to do seems likes a real first, and seems like a good idea because states are really struggling with trying to figure out what to do with disabled students," said Keith Gaylor, the associate director for the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group. "They seem to be doing a very honorable thing—trying to test students fairly and also not give them a second-class diploma."

The Maryland state board of education is considering requiring all students to pass the state’s 10th grade assessments in English, algebra/data analysis, government, and biology to receive a high school diploma, beginning with the class of 2009.

Nancy S. Grasmick

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick received approval from the state board last month to set up a task force to study options for the alternative exams. The new panel, which she will appoint in the coming months, will work over the next three years to study the feasibility of the idea and its potential costs.

Testing students with disabilities, particularly with high-stakes exams, is a controversial and emotional issue for special education advocates and other educators.

Many have raised concerns that high-stakes testing will make earning a regular high school diploma too difficult for many students with disabilities and thus hurt their chances for work or higher education after they leave high school.

Ms. Grasmick said that a test was "desperately needed" for a significant group of students, including some that do not have disabilities.

"We know of examples of other, high-performing students who may not test well," she said. Because Maryland officials could not find a test that met their needs, "this will be helpful not only for our state but the nation," she said.

Studying Options

While some states are using portfolios and other alternative means to determine qualifications for a diploma, Maryland officials hope that emerging technologies will allow the state to craft a different kind of test. Such a test could be entirely computer-based and use such technology to produce, for instance, an exam that could be given orally in a language other than English.

The challenge, state officials say, will be to devise a test that is as rigorous and covers the same content as the regular assessments, to avoid lawsuits that would challenge an alternative test.

"We recognized, when we looked around the country at alternative assessments, it ends up really being a lower standard," said Ronald A. Peiffer, the deputy superintendent for the Maryland Department of Education. "We’re trying not to use the word ‘alternative’—because of the baggage associated with it, we’re using the word ‘comparable.’"

First, Mr. Peiffer said, the state must determine which students would be eligible. If passing the high school assessments becomes a requirement for the class of 2009, the state will have better data on how many students could use such a test by 2008, after most students have taken the test, he said.

Cost, too, could be a factor, as many new technologies are expensive. Buying enough computers or other devices so that all eligible students in the state could take the exam at the same time could be a challenge.

"The question is, can you resolve all of those problems?" Mr. Peiffer said. "We believe you can; it’s a matter of developing a system."

Vol. 23, Issue 36, Page 18

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