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Did the 'old fogies' pass high school exam?

Deseret Morning News graphic

We passed!

After six hours on the hot seat and three weeks to sweat about it, all nine adults who took the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test this past month made the grade.

Many of us couldn't be more relieved. We're worthy of high school diplomas.

"Yay! I passed!" said Davis Superintendent Brian Bowles.

"I can hold my head high," State Associate Superintendent Ray Timothy said.

"I was excited," said Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem. "It was kind of like being in school again and getting a report card."

Utah students, beginning with this year's seniors, have to pass the UBSCT to receive a basic high school diploma. Three test attempts will net an alternative diploma; anything less could bring a certificate of completion.

The idea is to show high school graduates have basic skills in reading, writing and math, the skills a group of employers a few years ago said graduates seriously lacked.

The UBSCT is well known among Utah students, some of whom have taken it three times. But legislators have questioned whether it's too easy, too hard, or really measures basic skills.

Last spring, Ferrin asked to take the test to find out for himself. He challenged colleagues to join him.

The State Office of Education responded with an invitation for legislators, school leaders or other interested adults to take the test Aug. 5.

Only Ferrin showed from the Capitol crew.

But three superintendents — Timothy at the state level, plus Bowles and South Summit Superintendent Timothy Smith — took the tests. So did State Board of Education Chairman Kim Burningham, American Preparatory Academy charter school's outreach services director Kevin McVicar, and Deseret Morning News reporters Laura Hancock and Jennifer Toomer-Cook and editor Mary Finch.

Educators said they wanted to know what their students are going through.

"I took the test to try and help my kids in the district," Smith said. "It was good that I passed the test, because I can say . . . 'Look, if this old fogy can pass it, you can pass it.' "

We journalists wanted to broaden our understanding of the UBSCT, which we've been writing about since the competency exam requirement hit the lawbooks in 1999. We paid our own way, at $25 per test. We promised to publish our results — we do it for everyone else, so fair is fair.

Most everyone else agreed to divulge their results, too. Smith said he consistently scored in the highest achievement levels possible (there are four categories, minimal and partial, which do not pass, sufficient and substantial), but he wouldn't share his scores.

"I don't think (scores are) that important, anyway," he said. "Comparison — that's not the point."

True, state testing contractor Measured Progress says the best way to see how you did is look at your level of performance. That's partly because the UBSCT's scores are scaled, each test's scale tops out at a different number, and each question is weighted by difficulty.

Still, many of us just couldn't seem to get off the numbers. Our results became a friendly competition of sorts, even a source of gentle taunts and self-deprecating jokes — though nearly all of us scored the highest level, "substantial," on everything.

"I'm quite delighted. I beat you in writing," Burningham, who teaches the art at Franklin Covey, joked with Toomer-Cook. "But you beat me in math."

Yes, Toomer-Cook (who, we should note, has received a number of journalistic awards for her writing) received the lowest writing score in the whole group. Her essay took most of the hits, scoring 8 out of 10 in all six categories, rounding out her 179.

Hancock scored a 180. "I guess the test-graders think I'm a slightly-above-average writer. But I write for a living!"

A shining moment for the newspaper, indeed.

At least editor Finch brings up our averages, with a 185 on the essay that for weeks she feared was "lame."

"My only guess is that they gave more weight to spelling and grammar than they did to content," she said. "Either that or they just couldn't read my bad handwriting."

Several of us were shocked with our scores.

Hancock convinced herself to the point of acceptance that she had bombed math. Her "substantial" performance and 176 in math came as a complete surprise.

Timothy, too, was surprised that his score in math, which he considered his best subject, wasn't higher than a 174.

"I was really worried because I'd not had a math class in 25 years, even in college. But I thought I aced it, because I thought I remembered everything, Timothy said. "That's why I was surprised."

Maybe a little bit of all of us secretly hoped to get perfect marks.

"So obviously, (I feel) a little bit of disappointment," said McVicar, whose 177 math score was one question shy of a flawless.

Bowles, however, got the only perfect score in the bunch: a 187 in writing.

"It was fun, a good experience," he said of the test.

Still, it was a stressful way to spend the day, taking tests that many of us — save Hancock, who spent the week studying for university finals — haven't faced in years.

"I don't know why I was so worried," said Timothy, a Ph.D.-carrying, longtime educator. "I can understand why our students feel that anxiety. And I understand those students who have test phobia, I understand the pressures they must be feeling.

"When you get in that setting, those high school feelings come back."