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Looking at new path to diploma

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High school students: Tired of sitting through classes when you know the material?

Or having to take basket weaving just to fill your schedule?

Wish you could just test out of classes, graduate early and get on with your life?

All that soon could be within reach.

The State Board of Education is talking about revolutionizing how high schools go about education.

Students would be asked to rack up a few more required credits. And they could simply demonstrate what they know by passing a test instead of taking a class.

But more would be expected of them when they do take a course. In order to earn credit, a student would have to earn a C or better and pass a year-end test. That means D's won't count.

Board members believe this "competency-based education," or meeting knowledge instead of seat-time standards, is the wave of the future — and a way to address criticisms of social promotion or churning out graduates unprepared for college or the work force.

"I think we're going to see some remarkable changes," said Pamela Atkinson, a member of the college-governing Utah Board of Regents and non-voting member of the State Board of Education. "I firmly believe this proposal . . . will enhance the positive components we currently have in our system."

Competency-based education has been pushed by Gov. Mike Leavitt and his Employers Education Coalition. The coalition, led by Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Fraser Bullock, has reported a survey of area businesses indicates high school graduates lack basic writing and math skills. Colleges also report increased demand for remedial coursework in those subjects.

A state school board committee — and at least one school district — has met for months to discuss how to implement competency-based education. The committee presented its proposal in a Thursday school board meeting.

The number of required credits would jump from 15 to 18. Current credits required in each subject wouldn't change much, except students would have to pick up a personal finance class. They also would have to focus the extra three credits in any area they choose, be it art, engineering or auto mechanics.

The state currently requires nine elective credits, for a total of 24 credits, to graduate. Elective credits would be left up to school districts.

Students would have to earn a C or better and pass a year-end test — likely the core curriculum test already take each spring — to receive credit.

Or, if they get an A in the class, the test score wouldn't matter; ditto for the class grade if they master the test.

Or, instead of taking a class, students could demonstrate they know the material, perhaps with a portfolio, and get permission to take the year-end test for credit.

At minimum, students would have to show knowledge of intermediate algebra, 11th-grade language arts, U.S. Government and either biology, chemistry or physics to graduate. Students would have to take — or demonstrate knowledge in — math and at least one other core class their last year of school.

Funding also could change. Currently, the state funds students through a weighted pupil unit formula, based on them being in school all year.

The board suggests securing a WPU for every 4.5 graduation credits a student earns. That could mean more per-student funding for schools, but only in the short run, as students will full loads would graduate more quickly.

Also, the state board wants to ensure middle school curriculum prepares kids for high school.

The board is disseminating the proposal to education officials, legislators and the Governor's Office. The committee will reconvene in April to make changes, then put the proposal out for public input in the spring. Final action is scheduled for August.

"This will affect students and parents so much," board President Kim Burningham said. "We need their input . . . in what will be a monumental change."

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com