Defining a high school diploma is about to get harder.
Students will need to prepare more to win graduation certification, and future employers will need to read the fine print to know what job applicants really have accomplished.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has been working for three years to define graduation standards for the new century, and the project still is not done. Although unfinished, it already is transforming the way schools work on all grade levels.
Assistant Superintendent Ed McLain told the school board the state's new high school graduation exam has left him feeling "very uneasy."
The district is in limbo awaiting results of the first round of the high-stakes tests administered statewide in March. Under state law, students beginning with the high school class of 2002 need to pass a three-part written exam to graduate in Alaska.
The district's effort to raise graduation standards has been forced to take a back seat to the state's project, but district officials are drawing a clear distinction between the two efforts.
"We would like to go farther," McLain said.
The district wants students to strive for excellence -- not for a minimum level of competency, he stressed.
The certified diploma committee has considered setting up several types of diplomas or "endorsements" to go with diplomas, which McLain compared to merit badges. The goal is to clarify that the desired level of achievement is far more than the foundation level.
"We wanted to make it clear," he said.
School board member Nels Anderson, who serves on the committee, emphasized the importance of its work.
The committee has been defining goals for all grades and developing benchmark tests to measure students' progress. The district has used the information to help flagging students keep up with their classmates.
"This has been a driving force to change the way we do instruction in the earliest grades," Anderson said.
The committee has set benchmark and other standardized test scores for students in grades three, six and eight to show if they are working at the advanced, proficient, foundational or below proficient levels. The proficient level is the target for students and the focus for the district's comprehensive and regular curriculum, according to the report.
The committee still has plenty of work ahead, McLain and Anderson said.
The administration and school board have yet to decide the basic philosophical issue of whether it will continue to issue a single diploma, or whether it will begin grant-ing honorary endorsements for advanced and proficient learning.
Second, they need to find a good way to evaluate science and social studies learning, which are the most difficult subjects to pin down, Anderson said.
Third, they need to set the final standards for high school students.
The Monday committee report intentionally left the high school component vague, pending the state's assessment of the exit exams, he said.
The state has convened committees to analyze the exams high school sophomores took this spring and set the line between passing and failing. They meet June 12 to 14 in Anchorage. There are three committee members from the Kenai Peninsula: Dorothy Gray, from the district's staff development department in the central office; North Star Elementary School teacher Sandy Miller and Debra Burdick, a former teacher from Seward, according to a newsletter from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
The state plans to release the score information in late September, McLain said.
As soon as scores are available, he plans to meet with Curriculum Director Gary Whiteley and Assessment Director Mark Leal to scrutinize them, he said.
Anderson recommended that the school board have a work session at that point to evaluate the situation. Work sessions are open to the public.
The next regular meeting of the school board will be June 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Borough Building in Soldotna.
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