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Time's up! Class of 2006 faces exit exam

Dear Class of 2006:

You're the first to be held to the state's new high school exit exam. And you look like lab rats.

School districts are experimenting on you to learn how to best help students struggling on the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test. Answers will come too late to help you much.

With no universal student ID to track your scores over time, the state can't with certainty tell legislators — who control the money to give you extra help — how many of you are failing.

Lawmakers may provide money to help those who come after you — based on your test scores.

No one really knows what your "basic diploma," "alternative completion diploma" or "certificate of completion" will mean in the real world. They're just waiting to see what happens to you next year.

Some school bosses want to change the law because they worry a few of you who don't deserve it will be hurt. Could come too late for you, though.

What happens to students after the final test will likely raise questions that have not yet come up, says Steven Hirase, assistant superintendent overseeing curriculum in Murray School District.

"I'm sure what happens with this first graduating class will shape what happens for future classes."

But a godfather of Utah school accountability says you're no experiment. He says UBSCT trials went on when you were in elementary and junior high school, with development, practice runs and even a delay for fine-tuning. He says high schools should teach basic skills. And testing to see if you're getting them is a good thing.

"I think the Class of 2006 has actually been well served by UBSCT and U-PASS in general. As they march down the aisle in graduation, they can be more proud of that diploma than any class in the last 50 years in Utah because we are assuring that diploma actually means something significant," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper and sponsor of U-PASS, Utah's school accountability system that includes the UBSCT.

"This is tough love, and it's a bitter pill to swallow for a lot of people used to a system that can be gamed."

But there's a new twist to this traditional back and forth between schools and the Legislature.

They're not going to be caught holding the bag, if there is one.

You are.

The basic skills test was created in 1999 and folded a year later into the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, a series of tests, accountability and reporting requirements to hold schools responsible for student achievement.

UBSCT has three parts — reading, writing and math — and you have to pass them all to get a basic diploma. If you don't pass but tried three times, you can get an alternative diploma. Do neither and you'll probably get a certificate of completion.

The exam is Utah's only high-stakes test. Your results will follow you for life. You have two more chances to take it: in October and again in February.

Schools hope you'll be prepared.

The State Office of Education last May gave 10 school districts, including Box Elder, Jordan, Provo and San Juan, about $100,000 to figure out how best to help those of you who haven't passed yet. That could be as many as 17 to 26 percent or more of your some 36,000-student-strong class, according to state data and a Deseret Morning News analysis.

"We want to find best practices specific to UBSCT," said Brett Moulding, state director of curriculum and instruction. "We know best practices for remediation of students, but what we want to know is if there are some specific practices going on in districts that we can recommend to others to look at in terms of students passing that specific test."

You can view that two ways. On one hand, you guys, plus the few juniors who actually showed up this summer for assistance, are getting extra help. On the other, you're the lab rats in a study.

Murray School District is gathering results of the study and hopes to have some answers out this fall — maybe in time to help those of you still taking the test in February.

The inability to tell lawmakers how many of you are failing might affect how much of a problem they see is out there, and how much money they hand out for tutoring, or other help to make sure you start getting higher math concepts as early as fourth grade.

Then again, it might not. Lawmakers a year ago knew thousands of you hadn't passed the exam. The State Board of Education asked for $6 million so schools could bring you up to speed. The Legislature didn't put up a penny for it.

"The funding is already there. It's called $2.7 billion dollars," Stephenson said, pointing to the Utah public schools budget. "If our school system can't teach basic skills with $2.7 billion, I don't know why we should provide $6 million in interventions for those who don't make it. They can do it already with (current) funding and should have the processes in place."

School chiefs swear they'll keep asking for more cash, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington said in a May e-mail to school leaders. They even wanted to break down test scores by ZIP code "so that each lawmaker can look at his/her own area and see how students are faring."

Trouble is, if legislators do put out any extra money, it will come too late to make a difference in your class. Your last chance at the test is in February during the legislative session.

People don't really know what the new diplomas will mean in the real world.

An alternative diploma probably won't hurt your college chances, though. Utah's higher education commissioner has said good grades and a solid college entrance test score are what matters.

It probably won't haunt you if you want to join the Army or Utah National Guard either, Guard spokesman Maj. Hank McIntire says. That's even though the Armed Forces categorize recruits — affecting access to financial aid in college and whether they can even enlist — based on high school graduation status. Washington, D.C., has issued no directives on the matter.

"We're not concerned at all with the changes in diplomas," McIntire said. "(Students) shouldn't be either."

But there's a big question mark in the job market.

A group of employers a couple of years ago complained high school graduates can't do basic writing or math. They told lawmakers a high school diploma ought to mean a person has learned something significant, not just sat in a classroom 12 years.

The UBSCT is supposed to ensure that.

"I think employers clearly will take note" of different diplomas, said Tom Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association, which includes about 800 companies.

Businesses may ask applicants who don't have a basic diploma more questions, he says. "Because if they're looking for someone who needs some math skills, and it's math they couldn't pass, that may be a determining factor in their employment."

Still, Bingham says not all businesses even know the different diplomas are coming. He says he hopes to educate them.

The UBSCT also isn't exactly what Bingham and the employers group was after. They wanted to make it so even first-graders had to prove they knew their stuff before moving on to the next grade. The proof could be in performing certain tasks, presentations or portfolios.

That's where the UBSCT is flawed, Bingham says. It doesn't allow for any other way to "demonstrate competency," as school bosses call it. That puts it out of sync with the direction Utah public schools have been trying to head in the past few years.

"It's certainly not quite where some of us on the (Employers Education Coalition) wanted to go in measuring competency, but it's certainly a step in the right direction," Bingham said. "In my judgment, it simply waits too long to find out . . . and (uses) one test, and some people don't test well."

One Utah senior maintains a 3.6 GPA and is involved in school activities, her dad says. She earns top grades in language arts, and B's and C's in math. She's tried the UBSCT math test three times. But her test anxiety is so severe she just freezes.

"It's a slap in the face to go to school for 12 years and do your best and push really hard and maintain the best grades you can — and they're high grades, and honestly earned grades— to get (an alternative completion diploma)," says the father, who like other parents asked to be unnamed to protect his child's identity. "It's a slap in the face that is not earned; it's a slap in the face that is legislated."

A Salt Lake County student with an eye on college and B-average grades despite dyslexia also is struggling on the UBSCT. Her mom says she hasn't been able to find any help through her public school. She's shelling out bucks for private tutoring.

"They're guinea pigs," the mother said of high school seniors. "And I think the Class of (2007), it's not going to be much better for them."

Juniors are feeling the heat, too.

West High's Liliana Sonntag says she has taken the test once and took a prep class beforehand. She failed the math section and enrolled in a summer help class. But by the end of July, she didn't have much peace of mind.

"I am really nervous because the test is not even until October," she said. "I don't know what I will do if I fail again — I just hope I remember."

Classmate Liz McGee shares the sentiment.

"I think I feel more confident, but I am still probably going to fail it," McGee said of the math test. "I am still hoping to be able to catch up enough that I pass."

Utah has plenty of seniors who have repeatedly failed. In Granite District alone, 535 have attempted the math test three times, the district reports. Davis District has 251 students in the same boat.

School bosses' greatest fear is students will get so frustrated they drop out. Davis School District's testing boss Chris Wahlquist hopes you understand the "alternative completion diploma" is the same thing as every high school graduate in Utah has to date. The "basic diploma" just has extra bells and whistles.

"I worry," she said. "We're doing everything possible to reach students who need assistance. I'm focused on it — absolutely. This is important to the students. I believe we can (do it)."

Everybody must pass the UBSCT to get a basic high school diploma, even if they barely speak English or are in special education. There is one exception: Students with significant cognitive disabilities — the state says there are few — can take the Utah Alternate Assessment instead.

The law is strict for a reason, Stephenson says. Loopholes would cheapen the diploma for everybody.

But Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, says he questioned high-stakes testing after he took the UBSCT last month.

"I'm not doubting, and I'm not arguing, I'm just questioning," Ferrin said. "That single exam can certainly prevent (a) student from graduating with a (basic) diploma. I'm just wondering out loud how valid that test is and making that particular judgment on a student."

School bosses are imagining other scary scenarios.

Let's say you move to Utah your senior year, right before schools give the final UBSCT.

You pass reading and writing but fail math.

Under a strict interpretation of the law, you're going to get a certificate of completion.

But that's "too unrealistic, too punitive," said Carol Lear, lawyer and coordinator of government and legislative relations for the State Office of Education. You tried the test as many times as possible; that ought to make you eligible for an alternative completion diploma, she says.

Maybe you moved here just before the final test, but you didn't show up on test day. Now, Lear believes you'll probably get a certificate of completion because you made no attempt to pass the test.

What if you didn't hear about it? What if you were really sick? What if your grandpa died that day?

The point is, the law doesn't include exceptions for people like you. So what would happen to you is not clear.

"Lawsuits that have been successful in other states focused on opportunities, numbers of chances students had to take the test, and notice to parents," Lear said. "I think you set yourself up for a lawsuit if you're that absolute."

The Attorney General's Office thinks the state school board can offer some leeway.

Say you moved here in March of your senior year, a month after the UBSCT was given for the last time.

If you've already passed a test like the UBSCT in another state, you might still get a basic diploma if that other test is comparable to Utah's.

Or, the state might make up a sort of alternative UBSCT test so you can prove you have basic skills.

Assistant Attorney General John S. McAllister, in a letter answering Lear's questions, said that "would satisfy the Legislature's intent to require accountability for student achievement as well as allow for fairness for students whose families may relocate to Utah unexpectedly."

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is requesting a bill to let some people off UBSCT's hook. They would be adults taking the General Educational Development (GED) test, students passing a comparable test in another state, or out-of-staters without at least two chances to take the exam. Those people could just get the basic diploma.

But Lear says that bill, which got stuck in the House last year, didn't get at the heart of some of the problems.

Her office wants narrow exceptions for students with real testing phobias, for example, and a limited appeals process for family tragedies, student hospitalizations and the like. It's writing up details to help persuade Ray or any other legislator who's interested to push them on the Hill.

Some might welcome changes in the law. But if changes don't affect you, and end up setting a different standard for students who graduate after you, they could cause legal problems, warns the dad whose daughter is struggling.

"I predict that this UBSCT as it presently is will die in a couple, three years. It will die because they will see it as an unsuccessful thing. But there will be people who will be lost," he said. "It's like formulating a drug that killed people. Is it OK to say 'sorry,' or should there be a price tag involved?

"You don't play with people's lives."

Contributing: Tiffany Erickson