Tue, Jan. 21

New standards would allow students to graduate high school early

PHOENIX -- High schoolers bright enough to pass a battery of tests could graduate early -- as early as the end of 10th grade -- under the terms of legislation approved Wednesday by a Senate panel.

The proposal, which now goes to the full Senate, would create an alternative "Grand Canyon Diploma' available to any student who could show proficiency in all require core courses. The time in school -- what sponsor Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, calls "seat time' -- would be irrelevant.

Students with one of these diplomas would be guaranteed admission to community colleges. They also could choose to go to a trade school or stay in high school and take advance placement courses toward college.

Or, Crandall said, they could simply drop out at that point, even if all they wanted to do is flip hamburgers.

"We're getting away from this idea that you have to sit in a seat for 180 days,' said Crandall, who chairs the House Education Committee.

One option, though, would be off the table: They would not be entitled to go directly into one of the state's three universities. Crandall said each of those schools would retain its ability to decide when a student is eligible.

Wednesday's 5-2 vote by the Senate Committee on Education Accountability and Reform sends HB 2731 to the full Senate. It already has been approved by the House.

What's behind the plan is the concept of "move on when ready,' allowing students to leave high school when they have shown they have learned what they need.

Crandall emphasized that would not be measured by the standardized reading, writing and math tests now required under Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards to graduate. That test, he noted, is first administered in 10th grade.

"Most kids pass it the first time,' Crandall said. "What that does is it leads to major 'cruising' junior and senior years,' he said, with many students taking the required courses and doing just enough to pass, as their scores on AIMS already guarantee graduation.

The measure drew no objection from the Arizona School Boards Association, at least in part because the plan is voluntary: No district would be required to participate. But Sam Polito, who lobbies on behalf of several Tucson area districts, said superintendents are generally in favor of the option.

But several legislators expressed concerns. Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, said she's not sure that 10th graders belong with college students.

"We don't want a bunch of 16-year-olds on college campuses,' Crandall said. He said the preferred alternative would be for public schools to bring community college instructors onto their campuses to offer courses.

And he pointed out this option also would let students enroll in vocational and technical trade schools when they're ready, rather than having to wait until they get a traditional diploma.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, questioned the need for a special program. She said there already are "dual enrollment' options for qualified high schoolers to take community college courses as well as advance placement college courses.

"Our status quo high school program in Arizona does not work,' Crandall countered.

One indication of that, he said, is that Arizona has a smaller number of its high schoolers going on to college than any other state. Conversely, he said Arizona has one of the highest rate of high school graduate who need remedial courses when they do go on the college.

"To point to our current structure and say, 'We're just fine,' I'm sorry, I just can't agree with it,' Crandall said.

Lopez responded that, from her perspective, giving a 10th grader a Grand Canyon Diploma does not mean he or she is college ready.

"I have a little more confidence,' Crandall responded.

Sen. David Braswell, R-Phoenix, voted to support the measure. But he said the plan still needs work.

He questioned whether someone who is trained to teach at the college level would be effective in teaching a 10th grader.

"It's going to be different,' Braswell said. "And if it's not, then I've got to question if we're just sticking a label on something and hoping for the best.'

Crandall said even if the measure becomes law it likely would take a couple of years to actually set up the system. That is based, at least in part, on a requirement for the state Board of Education to contract with a private firm to come up with a testing system.

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