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Utah may raise bar for graduation

High school students might end up kissing some of those weight-lifting, ceramics and teachers-aide classes goodbye.

The days of the block schedule also might be numbered.

Scheduling and so-called "fluff" classes are likely to be turned on their ears under a graduation-requirements proposal a State Board of Education committee fine-tuned Monday.

The changes come as part of the board's — and the Legislature's — move to focus on academics and student knowledge to give more meaning to high school diplomas.

The move might send ripples through communities statewide. Board chairman Kim Burningham, for instance, believes it could eliminate the need for the controversial Utah Basic Skills Competency Test, which the class of 2006 will have to pass to receive a regular high school diploma.

On the other hand, the proposal probably won't make the average student work much harder to graduate from a Utah high school. Just smarter.

"This would not affect" average students, said Teresa Theurer, who leads the state board committee. "But kids can exit our system now without knowing what they should know. I think this is going to require them to show they know it."

Still, others believe the proposal will "devastate the curriculum," board member Edward Dalton said.

The state board last January floated a proposed competency-based education system, which sets standards for what kids would have to know to graduate from high school instead of a litany of required classes.

The proposal came as the governor's Employers Education Coalition complained high school graduates can't write well or solve simple math problems.

The Legislature responded to the EEC's complaints by passing SB154, which in part aims to assure high school graduates have a certain knowledge base.

The state board's proposal requires kids to know 11th grade-level English; either biology, chemistry or physics; U.S. government; and geometry or second-level applications math. Kids also would have to take a semester's worth of personal finance, and take or demonstrate knowledge in math and one other core class their senior year to keep skills sharp for college or the world of work.

The math requirement was brought down from the intermediate algebra level following complaints from teachers and school officials.

Some feared even smart kids could have a hard time achieving that level of math. Others noted colleges' graduate-school entrance test doesn't go much further than geometry. Also, only one state, Oklahoma, essentially requires intermediate algebra to graduate, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Laing said.

Basically, though, the board's proposed levels of knowledge match current graduation requirements.

The main difference is kids couldn't slide by with D's. At minimum, students would have to earn a C in those classes and pass a year-end test. Accelerated students could test out of classes and graduate early.

The board proposes 14.5 required credits — basically are the same as they are now in core classes, fine arts, health, P.E. and the like. Students also would have to pick 3.5 credits in an area of interest, such as medical science or art.

Plus, they'd have to complete another 6 units of electives, including released time for LDS seminary.

That would essentially cap student loads at 24 credits or "competencies." That's down from the possible 28 or 32 credits teens might be earning now.

Districts couldn't deviate and add more electives, either.

"That is major — I can't stress that enough," Laing said.

Essentially, that would force districts to examine how they spend money.

Under the plan, core academics would come first. That could force schools to shuffle teaching resources from electives to possible remedial classes — key to ensuring all kids have a shot at those new knowledge standards.

Students also could complete requirements by taking six classes a day. Since many schools now offer seven-period class days or rotating eight-period block schedule, they may have to look at offering, say, six, 55-minute class periods a day, Laing said.

Otherwise, they'd have to lengthen time spent in block schedule classes — which already are 90 minutes long — or look at altering bus schedules to let school out earlier than normal, which is potentially costly.

Indeed, big changes are on the way. And some worry they won't all be for the better.

"I fear this will result in a lot more failure for a certain block of students," Dalton said.

But Theurer has a different take.

"If (kids) leave (school) not knowing the material, and they've left our system, I think we've failed them."

The full state school board will hear the proposal April 4. Parents, students, and school officials will have opportunities statewide to give input on the ideas through much of the summer. A final vote is scheduled for August.