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State’s skills test may get ax

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Utah's controversial high school graduation test looks like it's about to get the ax — just in time for teens to duck it altogether.

The reason, according to legislators: The State Board of Education's proposed new graduation requirements would accomplish the same goal.

The Public Education Legislative Task Force unanimously voted Tuesday to prepare a bill to eliminate the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test, which the state has already developed, rewritten and twice piloted following complaints that it was either too easy or too hard.

Although the task force seemed to get behind the idea, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the move to brush it aside may be an effort to quell controversy — or a reaction to students faring poorly on the test during its pilot.

"I would be reluctant to eliminate the basic skills test for graduation until I saw the quality of what is to replace it," said Stephenson, co-sponsor of the legislation that set up the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (U-PASS), which includes the competency test. "It amazes me we would scrap the test before it is even fully on line after investing so much in it."

By December 2002, the state had spent nearly $1.3 million on the test, the Office of the Legislative Auditor General reports.

The move toward eliminating the test follows national outcry over high school graduation tests, which inner-city students are failing at much higher rates than suburban teens.

In Massachusetts, 94 percent of seniors in suburban schools have passed that state's graduation test, compared with 79 percent in city schools, The Associated Press reports.

Last May, about 2,500 protesters gathered outside Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's office demanding he halt that state's high-stakes diploma exam because of similar issues, the Associated Press reported. And California's state schools boss in recent weeks pitched delaying his schools' new exit exams until 2006 due to mounting evidence that thousands of students would fail.

Utah's motives, however, are different.

The UBSCT is required for students to earn a full diploma, with those failing the test receiving alternative diplomas. Its purpose is to give a high school diploma more substance. The class of 2006 was to be the first to be tested.

The UBSCT is being considered for elimination because proposed standards-based graduation requirements would accomplish UBSCT's goals, said state Testing Coordinator Louise Moulding.

The proposed graduation requirements are in response to SB154 and complaints from the governor's Employers Education Coalition that high school graduates are ill-prepared for the work force and lack basic knowledge.

The plan is complex. But basically, it puts more emphasis on academics and forces students who want to graduate to show they have learned each subject — not just slid by with a passing grade (see www.usoe.k12.ut.us/PR/Competencydraft.htm for more information).

With a few exceptions, the actual course requirements are basically status quo. The biggest difference is kids must demonstrate they know "exit competencies," including 11th grade English; geometry or second-level applied math; and advanced science such as biology, chemistry or physics.

Kids would have to get a C or better and pass a year-end test. Accelerated students could test out of classes and graduate early.

"You don't need more areas, you need to demonstrate competency in the areas," State School Board chairman Kim Burningham said in presenting the proposal to legislators. "That's a big change."

Those who aren't measuring up will receive tutoring, after-school help and summer classes, a costly but necessary part of the plan, Burningham said.

Some legislators voiced concerns kids would miss out on a full educational experience if they simply pass a test to fulfill a class requirement.

Others wondered whether new graduation standards would decrease class attendance or increase dropout rates.

The public is invited to chime in on the proposal through mid-October at grad@usoe.k12.ut.us or in upcoming community meetings, which have yet to be set.

Along with axing the UBSCT, Moulding's office proposes adding a math test for seventh and 10th graders and other diagnostic tests for fifth through 12th graders.

The changes are an effort to accomplish goals contained in U-PASS, the federal No Child Left Behind Act and SB154.

E-mail: ehayes@desnews.com