EDUCATORS in Arizona are planning an innovative program to ensure that diplomas from the state's public schools are worth more than just the parchment they're printed on.
A new system, approved last month by the State Board of Education, will require Arizona high school students to pass a series of competency tests before being allowed to graduate.
These evaluations, administered at various stages of a student's high school career, will measure ability in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. The plan places Arizona at the forefront of a growing national effort to set universal test standards for high schoolers.
Arizona Schools Superintendent C. Diane Bishop says she made the proposal after noticing a pattern in the state's annual surveys of graduates. Every year, a percentage of students said they had earned the required credits, received all As and Bs, graduated, and enrolled in a state university only to be forced into remedial courses.
``It's a great expense to the students and to the state when they have to spend their first year of college taking preparatory classes,'' Ms. Bishop says. ``Many of these students said they felt cheated; they thought they were prepared.''
Grades seen as subjective
Current rules allow Arizona students to graduate after acquiring 20 credits. A credit unit is awarded to a student after completing a course with a minimum grade of D-minus, a mark that often reflects little more than class attendance.
Bishop argues that any evaluative system based on grades is doomed to be subjective and inconsistent. ``Every teacher has a different impression of what constitutes an A, B, or C,'' she says.
``Statewide tests will judge every student by the same standard. The message is that the state doesn't care anymore how many students graduate each year. We want them to be able to read, write, and have a knowledge of math, science, and social studies.''
But the system, set to start with the freshman class of 1996, faces a complicated host of challenges.
Tom Pickrell, legal counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association, warns that competency standards can be a double-edged sword.
``The higher the standards, the more students will fail,'' he says. ``But if you lower the standards, you get crucified by the media. It puts the school board in a difficult position.''
When other states have tried similar approaches, he explains, ``standards have drifted downward because it's been politically unpopular to flunk a lot of people.''
Bishop insists that the state board will fight attempts by politicians to soften the tests. ``We are not going to lower the standards.... We aren't helping [students] when we set a low standard for them just to push them through the system. If they go to college, it will be obvious that they can't do anything of substance.''
While Mr. Pickrell supports the concept of competency testing, he objects to Bishop's plan mainly because he believes the tests kick in too late. ``Our criticism is that they're starting at the top in high school, rather than the bottom.''
Pickrell argues that tests should be implemented when students graduate from elementary school and junior high so they arrive at high school with ``a strong foundation.'' He says instead of pointing out needy students early on and helping them, high school tests become nothing more than ``a final hurdle you need to get over to graduate.''
Melissa Paez, a senior at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, says that too many of her classmates are just ``floating through'' school, but that difficult tests will cause more to drop out.
``I don't think that tests should matter that much. Sometimes you get nervous when you take a big test, and you don't do well. It's too much pressure. I think the teachers should have more to do with it. They should get more involved.''
Tests as bludgeons
Teachers are wary of standardized tests because the results are often misused, according to Gary Watts, senior director of a center for school innovation at the National Education Association, a teachers' lobby in Washington D.C. He says instead of helping teachers gauge the effectiveness of different teaching methods, test results become statistical bludgeons used by newspapers and politicians against low-scoring schools.
``If the purpose of a test is to show, after the fact, what the student has done, then it doesn't matter,'' he says. ``A good testing system doesn't do that, a good testing system has a diagnostic component.''
Dr. Watts argues that test results should ``provide help for those who need it, not separate who is going to succeed and who isn't.'' He says any compulsory testing system ought to offer a ``safety net'' of good remedial courses.
Dan Dodge, a high school social-studies teacher from Phoenix, says the tests will be useful only if the state provides enough resources to help the students whose skills are deficient.
``The funding has to be there,'' he says.
So far, Watts is encouraged by the Arizona plan because it will employ a variety of testing methods ranging from multiple-choice questions to research papers and essays.
He says in a best-case scenario, the Arizona tests will ``begin driving educators to realize what it is children need to learn and make sure they get it.''
Questions continue to mount while state officials prepare to devise the tests. Will students who fail be required to stay in school far beyond the age of 18?
And if scores of students pass the tests early, will they be ordered to clean out their lockers?
According to Bishop, Arizona law already allows students to stay in school until they are 21. And if a student manages to graduate ahead of schedule, she says, that is not the school's problem.