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High schoolers testing skills

Thousands of high school juniors starting today will put their skills to the test as they take — or retake — Utah's high school graduation exam.

This three-day round of the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test is for students who failed parts of the exam last February, or who for some reason sat out of it or didn't live here at the time.

Through Thursday, students will retake just more than 6,000 reading tests, just more than 12,000 math tests, and just more than 10,000 writing tests, the State Office of Education reported. Another 3,000 or so 11th graders also will be taking each of the test for the first time.

The competency test aims to hold schools more accountable for student achievement and tell employers that high school graduates can do basic writing and math tasks — a hot political topic in recent years.

But kids don't necessarily have to pass it to graduate from high school, state testing chief Judy Park said Monday.

"We want all students who have completed a certain level (of requirements) to graduate and receive a diploma of some type," Park said. "I think the law chose to take the middle ground, to say we value student achievement . . . but we also value the other parts of graduation which includes credits earned."

The competency test, created under a 1999 law, includes math, reading and writing sections. It first affects the class of 2006, or this year's juniors.

Beginning the winter of their sophomore year, students can take each part of the test up to five times until they pass it. Test questions are different each exam, but cover the same concepts.

Students passing all sections and completing other graduation requirements earn a basic high school diploma, Park said.

Those who show they have attempted each section at least three times, and complete all other graduation requirements, can earn an alternative diploma and still be considered a high school graduate.

"That is the biggest misunderstanding we're finding throughout the state. Students can graduate from high school . . . but in order to receive the one called a basic diploma, they must pass all sections," said Park. She added that employers can ask applicants to say which diploma they've earned. "Both diplomas are a high school diploma and a graduation from high school."

Those who do fail to meet either benchmark can receive a certificate of high school completion.

Last February, 67 percent of the class of 2006 passed the math test, 83 percent passed the reading exam, and 72 percent passed the writing portion.

State and local school districts are working to help students — for example, the State Board of Education is asking lawmakers for $10.1 million to help strugglers and better prepare students for the test.

The Utah Electronic High School last month set up a free course to help kids prepare for the competency test, complete with practice tests and tutorials. About 2,000 students had signed up as of a few weeks ago, State Office of Education spokesman Mark Peterson said.

Schools in several Wasatch Front districts offer brush-up classes and tutoring for the competency test.

But not all kids need prep courses or serious help — some just need to take the test seriously.

Salt Lake City School District has passed out fliers with football tickets and broadcast announcements at homecoming events to let people know the test actually counts, district spokesman Jason Olsen said. Officials also have called parents of some students who failed the test last winter to get them interested in taking a refresher course.