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Educators discuss changes in graduation requirements

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Scott County Central senior Amber Scherer adjusts her graduation cap.
DEXTER -- Proposed changes to high school graduation requirements in Missouri sparked discussion and raised questions of concern and approval as regional educators met Tuesday at the Dexter High School auditorium.

Stan Johnson, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, briefed over 100 Southeast Missouri administrators on the recommendations made by a task force that has spent the past year studying high school improvement issues.

"We're looking down the road and the expectations from high schools are changing," Johnson said. "We're trying to get ahead of that and be prepared by 2015."

The proposed changes would include a national exit exam with an add-on state component; require an increase of one unit in English, math, science and social studies and a new half-unit requirement in health education; and offer at least two types of high school diplomas.

"The biggest issue is the possible tie-in to an exit exam by using a test such as the ACT. We're fearful of that. It doesn't address the majority of students in the school," said East Prairie R-2 Superintendent Scott Downing.

The proposal calls for a new "exit test" to replace the current high school Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests. All juniors would be required to take an exam, such as the ACT or SAT, with an "add-on component" to address Missouri's academic standards. However, there would not be a state-

mandated passing score.

The plan is one several educators said is not focusing on rural Southeast Missouri students.

"In our geographic area, there are more vocational-track students than college-bound students," said a Senath-Hornersville administrator.

Cynthia Sharp Amick, director of curriculum and instruction at New Madrid County R-1, said she hopes there will be no constraints regarding the exit exams so the districts will have more flexibility.

"Then I would feel like it would be easier for us to utilize that, but right now if they say, 'This is what you have to do,' we're going to have kids who are not going to graduate," Amick said.

Or even worse, students would drop out of high school.

"It could cause a higher dropout rate, and that's part of a district's accreditation," Amick pointed out.

During a breakout session, some of the educators expressed concerns over one standard test being administered to two types of students -- urban and rural.

"You've heard someone from St. Louis who has never seen a cow unless maybe at a zoo or something. Well it's a possibility one of my students has actually milked a cow before coming to school," said one administrator. "We're rural, but we also turn out a good product."

Changing the minimum of graduation credit requirements from 22 to 24 didn't seem to bring much discussion since most schools already require 24 credit hours for graduation.

While not recommending the addition of a separate course, the task force also called for a requirement that all students acquire specific knowledge and competence in the area of "personal finance."

JoAnne Northern, superintendent at Scott County Central, said she supported the personal finance component idea.

"I think it's something schools could do better, and I think students could be a little more educated about finances and debt," Northern said.

Under the two-tiered diploma recommendation, students who earn 24 units of credit would qualify for a standard diploma. Students who earn a specified score would receive an "advanced diploma." Individual school districts could also create additional tiers to diplomas.

Other issues addressed Tuesday were the availability of state funding for administering the ACT; the significance of differentiated diplomas to employers; and motivation of vocational and special education students to perform well on the ACT.

Throughout the month, Johnson and the DESE panel are visiting different regions to discuss the recommendations. The quickest act by the State Board of Education on any rule would be in June, Johnson said. Then the proposed rule will be out for formal public comment in August. No final action or rule will be decided until October or November, he said.

The new graduation requirements would affect the graduating class of 2010 or the eighth grade classes of the 2005-2006 school year.

"I think the purpose is good, and the intent is right," Northern said about the overall proposed changes. "Some kinks just need to be worked out."