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High School May Get Harder

Stricter Standards Proposed For State


November 16, 2007

High school students would be required to pass end-of-course exams, complete a yearlong independent study project and earn 24 credits in specific areas to graduate from any public school in Connecticut under a set of recommendations being considered by the State Board of Education.

The recommendations, put together by a committee that included teachers, school officials and representatives of business and higher education, are part of a high school redesign effort intended to address stagnating test scores, wide achievement gaps and concerns that a growing number of state students graduate high school unprepared for college or the workforce.

"[The recommendations] make some major changes in what we expect of our students and our schools," said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education. "I think it's necessary to make those changes in order to prepare Connecticut students for the world that we'll be living in."

It will be years before any recommendations are adopted; state education officials will spend much of the next year soliciting public comment, and the legislature must authorize any changes in graduation requirements.

As proposed, the recommendations would represent a major change in public education, creating more specific standards that require more teachers and resources, and would add Connecticut to a growing list of states that require students to take end-of-course exams.

Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the recommendations are intended to address concerns that an increasing number of Connecticut high school graduates require remedial classes in college, and that the requirements of high school classes may vary widely among school districts.

"The business community and parents and the higher education community, they are all saying we need to ratchet up performance," Murphy said.

The changes would probably be felt keenly in urban districts, where achievement levels tend to be far lower than in the suburbs. But urban education leaders were divided about the potential fallout.

Although some said they welcomed tougher standards, others said they feared that even more students would be unable to graduate high school if they are forced to pass end-of-course exams in multiple subjects.

Cathy Carpino, president of Hartford's teachers union, said there must be a tremendous infusion of resources in the lower grades to increase the achievement of high school students.

If the state institutes stiffer requirements for students who aren't ready for them, Carpino said, "I can't begin to fathom the impact to the dropout rate."

The State Board of Education is expected to address the recommendations next month, Murphy said. After that, board members and Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan will hold discussions in communities throughout the state on the proposals.

The board will also seek funding from the legislature for a study to determine the costs of the proposals.

Some will probably require a major increase in resources; one proposal calling for students to take three years of lab sciences, for example, would require more school laboratories, Taylor said.

The recommendations include expanding and specifying graduation requirements.

Currently, high school students must take at least 20 credits to graduate, with a set distribution that includes four English, three math, three social studies and two science courses. But aside from a half-credit course on civics and American government, no specific courses are required.

The recommended changes would increase the required credits to 24 and outline specific courses, such as algebra I and II, international studies and biology.

Students also would have to take two years of world languages, which the state does not now require. Doing so today would be impossible, Murphy said; there are not enough language teachers. But committee members felt strongly that language was important for students entering a globalized workforce.

One of the 24 credits would come from a senior demonstration, in which seniors would participate in a yearlong independent study under the supervision of a teacher or mentor. Taylor described it as a way to keep seniors engaged during their final year in high school, and to have them apply skills synthesizing information and applying knowledge.

End-of-course exams, another recommendation, have long been a source of debate in Connecticut.

The recommendations call for the state to provide a model curriculum that districts could adopt for classes that require the exams.

The curriculum would be optional; districts could adopt it, borrow from it or not use it, Murphy said.

Twenty-two states use some form of exit exams for students, and an increasing number of those are moving toward end-of-course and standards-based exams, according to the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C.

Douglas Hiscox, assistant superintendent for secondary education in Bridgeport, said he is not opposed to the standards under consideration, but he said he worries that students who reach high school without the reading skills needed to pass high-stakes tests will fail.

"The CAP Test intimidates kids. A graduation test would be even more high-stakes," he said.

Hiscox was working in Ohio when that state instituted exit exams for high schools.

Graduation rates dropped for years, he said, and the test needed to be changed several times during a decade before a test was developed that urban educators thought was appropriate for their students.

"A lot of students dropped out because of that test," Hiscox said.

Murphy said any end-of-course tests would include flexibility for students who need alternatives to a test. "There will be a safety net for those students that simply cannot reach the standard by conventional means," he said.

Taylor said the exams would require identifying students who may struggle with the tests to give them support. But experience in other states has also suggested that "when you ask more, you get more," he said.

He said that many students who drop out are not failing, but bored, something he hoped that raising standards would address.

In Hartford, where Superintendent Steven Adamowski has said that just 29 percent of students who enroll as freshmen go on to graduate, the school district is already making changes in the curriculum that mirror those the state board contemplates.

For example, all freshmen in Hartford are taking algebra I this year, and freshmen have double periods for math and language arts, with extra time for reading for students who are reading below grade level.

District officials are also discussing exit exams for courses and increasing the number of credits that students need to graduate.

"The state's work is very much aligned with what we're doing," said Penny MacCormack, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

If new state standards are phased in to match changes that Hartford is making, she said, she does not think that new state graduation requirements will cause more Hartford students to drop out.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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