SALT LAKE CITY — The number of LDS teenagers who finished reading the assigned book of scripture in the church's youth seminary program rose 33 percent last year, according to new data.
Nearly 80 percent of students in the United States and other countries on a North American school calendar finished the entire Doctrine & Covenants that was one of two new, toughened graduation standards introduced during the 2014-15 school year by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We've tried to track reading for a number of years now, and we've never seen a jump like this," said Chad Webb, administrator of Seminaries and Institutes. "We're very happy with how our students have responded and how our teachers have encouraged them."
For the first time, students also needed to pass an assessment at the end of each semester. Data collected last week showed 81 percent of students on the North American calendar passed the assessments, Webb said.
The church had nearly 220,000 students in North America and Canada last year. Overall, 71 percent earned credit.
Worldwide, 399,682 students participated in seminary courses.
Whitney Nelson, 18, graduated from seminary last year in Woodbury, Minnesota. Now a freshman with an open major at BYU, she said she already was reading the assigned book of scripture each year — students are reading the Old Testament now — but she saw a change in others.
"There was more consistent reading throughout our class," Nelson said. "It motivated a couple of my friends to do it for the first time."
Nelson was part of a class of 12 Mormon students who met at 6:15 a.m. every weekday before high school classes. The two seniors in the class both graduated from seminary.
"I had an awesome teacher who made a whole reading schedule for us, and she kept us on track," she said. "There's so much for students to think about these days, and she helped us stay focused."
Webb said 77 percent of students met the attendance standard, up from 71 percent last year. Attendance has long been a requirement for graduation.
Webb said the new requirements help young Latter-day Saints understand how importance knowledge of the scriptures is to those who will serve missions, to their service in the church and their future family life.
"It's giving them a personal experience reading the scriptures," he said.
The end-of-term assessments focus more on doctrine than people, places and dates: "They really are a learning resource," Webb said.
Nelson said her teacher let the class know about the assessment two to three weeks in advance.
The assessments are given in class. Nelson said she finished hers in half a class period, then moved on to eat the breakfast her teacher provided. Others needed the entire class. Webb said additional assistance and time was provided to students who needed it.
Students who don't score below 75 percent can take an assessment home, look up the information and still finish, Nelson said.
"We're excited about the overall general response to the new requirements," Webb said. "A large number of our students increased their effort. I think we've gained all the advantages of raised expectations without any of the possible negatives of raising anxieties or scaring students."
Webb's department is still assessing lessons learned from the first year.
"We're always going to be concerned about the individual," he said. "We want to learn and improve so we can make sure each student can have a good experience."