By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press
COLUMBUS - Three times a year, when Canton City Schools offer a new chance for students to pass the ninth-grade proficiency tests required for an Ohio high school diploma, a handful of former students in their 20s show up for one more try.
"We have kids who are 25, 26 years old coming back to take the math test because they have never been able to graduate from high school," said George Burwell, assistant to the superintendent.
Canton and other districts will have to wait to determine if the new Ohio Graduation Test replacing the ninth-grade tests will be an improvement, he said.
The Ohio Board of Education voted 14-2 Monday to approve scoring categories, including passing scores, for the reading and math portions of the test.
Starting next spring, sophomores will be tested in those subjects plus writing, science and social studies. The board will set pass-fail scores for the last three tests next June.
State Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman thinks that what the board adopted is fair but remains concerned about the low passing scores and an "unacceptable" gap in scores on this year's sample tests between white students and some minorities, said J.C. Benton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.
The state's largest teachers union also will be watching closely, an official said.
The Ohio Education Association welcomes tests that for the first time are modeled closely on what the state recommends students should know at each grade level, but still worries about the power of one single test, said Karen Fulton, director of education policy. Students will be tested as if they've had 10 years of instruction on standards that were just adopted, she said.
"On the basis of a test score, there will be a high-stakes decision made about whether they graduate," she said. "There ought to be multiple assessments and multiple ways progress is measured."
Under state law, the tests are set for a 10th-grade level, two grades higher than former exit exams. Students will have several chances to pass to graduate on time in 2007.
Members set the number of correct answers needed for a student's performance to be considered limited, basic, proficient, accelerated or advanced. A student must achieve "proficient" to pass: 20 questions correct out of 48 for reading, or 42 percent, and 19 of 46 for math, or 41 percent.
If graded on that system, 22 percent of about 75,000 sophomores who took sample tests this spring failed in reading and 32 percent failed in math.
When broken down by race, the differences were stark: 18 percent of whites and 16 percent of Asians and Pacific islanders failed, compared with 38 percent of American Indians, 40 percent of Hispanics and 42 percent of blacks.
"The racial gap does concern me tremendously," said Elvin Jones, superintendent of East Cleveland City Schools, which in 2003 had a 38 percent passage rate for the old ninth-grade math test.
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