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Barriers for some diploma holders?

Utah seeks data on financial aid for 'alternative' grads

High school seniors failing the state's basic skills test still can go to college, education bosses have assured. But now, there's a question whether those students could get federal financial aid — from scholarships to Pell grants — without a hassle.

The State Office of Education and Utah System of Higher Education wonder whether the U.S. Department of Education would view the "alternative completion diploma," which thousands of students stand to receive this spring, as equivalent to a high school diploma. If it won't, low-income students needing Pell grants, for instance, might have to take yet another test before they can receive aid.

But agency chiefs, in talking with the Attorney General's Office, say they are taking steps to stave off problems for the Class of 2006.

"If the U.S. Department of Education is going to have a problem, let's figure it out now before we start issuing federal financial aid and find out they have a question about it," said Amanda Covington, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education. "Let's do it right the first time."

All Utah students, starting with this year's seniors, have to pass the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test, which measures reading, writing and math, to receive a "basic" high school diploma. The idea is to guarantee high school graduates are competent in those areas.

Students must pass all test sections, and may take the exams five times. If they don't, but try the test at least three times, they can receive an alternative completion diploma. Anything less could net a certificate of completion.

When school started this year, anywhere from 6,100 to 9,300 of 36,000 seniors were failing one or more parts of the test, according to state data and a Deseret Morning News analysis.

In other words, that many students were in line to receive an "alternative completion diploma" this fall. Seniors had a chance to take the test — it would be the fourth time for some — again last month. Results are not yet available.

Both diplomas denote high school graduation in Utah; both public school and college bosses agree to that.

But school leaders for months have wondered whether the alternative diploma would be understood in the real world.

"It's a new thing," said Tom Hicks, executive director of the Brighton K-12 Feeder System in Jordan School District, the state's largest. "So (what will be) the reaction of colleges, the reaction of financial assistance, the reaction of the military? Those questions have not been answered."

Federal financial aid regulations define a equivalent high school diploma as a GED, or a state certificate awarded following a high-school equivalency test, or completion of a two-year college program acceptable toward a bachelor's degree, for example.

There's no mention of an "alternative completion diploma." Some believe it might require aid-seekers to take an "ability to benefit assessment" first, said attorney Carol Lear, government and legislative relations director at the State Office of Education.

But requiring another test for a student who obviously doesn't test well doesn't strike school brass as a good idea.

Officials at both agencies say they have a plan of action.

They say they'll first seek clarification from the U.S. Department of Education in the matter but have not yet requested it.

If the department won't recognize the "alternative" diploma, the State Office of Education says it will change the word "alternative" to something else. The "basic" diploma title is required by Utah law.

It's no easy task, however, when the word "basic" means top of the line.

But school district curriculum leaders last week discussed possible new names, state curriculum director Brett Moulding said. Recommendations could be compiled for State Board of Education action, if necessary.

"What's in a word? Shakespeare talked about that one a long time ago," Moulding said.

"We're hoping we can come up with language in a rule that would not put artificial barriers in the way of children seeking higher education or advanced education," he said. "We're hoping if we have to respond, we'll be in a position to respond quickly."