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Electives Under Fire

Board of Ed. eyes more math, science, graduate planning

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State and federally mandated standardized testing, scant funding and sweeping reform of high school graduation requirements are issues Idaho schools face this year.

According to the latest Phi Delta Kappa Gallup poll of the public's attitude toward public schools, a majority of respondents feel federal standards as part of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) are too controlling of the curriculum dictated by standardized tests--given twice a year in grades 3 through 8 and once more in grade 10. 80 percent of those polled also say the test should broaden its scope beyond just science and math.

Allison Westfall with the Idaho Department of Education said the state administration wants to give students a comprehensive curriculum including arts and humanities. But the State Board of Education has proposed upping graduation requirements to focus more on math and the sciences to better prepare graduates for post-secondary education. Westfall said the proposal came as a result of concerns from officials who fear Idaho students haven't had enough education in math and sciences.

Currently, Idaho high school students must have four credits, or two passing years, of math and science to graduate. The proposal would increase the math requirement to eight credits and the science standard to six credits. The requirements for other areas would remain the same.

Critics argue students' ability to pursue elective courses will suffer, and that the proposed regulations are constricting to those who don't wish to pursue college as a post-secondary option. Speakers at several statewide meetings held this month by the Board of Education on the proposal also raised concerns that the change wouldn't leave students enough time to pursue elective credits.

The high school redesign proposal would leave a student with 25 elective credits. In Boise, students would only have 18 elective credits, said Dr. Don Coberly, director of curriculum for the Boise School District. The board's proposal would require eight of the remaining elective credits, whatever the number, to be in a career area, which Westfall said could be anything from a mechanics class to a fine-art studio course. But administrators at the Boise School District are concerned that the changes could help NCLB live up to its billing as an unfunded mandate.

"We are concerned about the potential for no funding for this high school reform," said district spokesman Dan Hollar. "We are supportive of accountability and can see results with NCLB, but we need to have discussion about what funding will be provided."

Part of the high school redesign plan would require students to maintain a 2.0 average in math, science, language arts and social studies. Hollar said the district must provide remedial courses to students who don't make the mark, and providing the staff, training and facilities could tap the district's already strained budget. If the Legislature passes this reform without providing additional appropriations, "There's the potential of eroding electives already in place," he said.

Coberly said he is worried the new requirements would negatively effect dropout rates, since students elect not to take advanced math and science classes because they're not good at those subjects. "If there's no additional funding, then the district is in the position of having to look at elements of the elective program that would have to be cut," he said. "There are a ton of kids in the district involved in music, arts and professional technical education programs. I just hope we'd have the ability to continue offering those programs."

The Board of Education's proposal includes an initiative that will change the grade at which kids are required to begin planning post-graduation options. Westfall said students are required to begin working on post-secondary plans in eighth grade. The Board of Education wants that planning to begin two grades earlier and to have parents involved in a post-secondary readiness plan that Westfall said would be updated every year beginning in middle school.

"The impression [that] we're forcing a kid into a college track is inaccurate," she said. "This is a planning tool to identify what interests a child has, how do you prepare and then you revisit each year. The expectation is to get parents and students to talk about this earlier, so there are no surprises when a child graduates from high school."

But this plan could prove ineffective, Coberly said. The Boise School District already has a four-year plan to advise high schoolers on their career options and help students determine eligibility requirements for college. "Kids' interests change, and it's more prevalent when you're talking about 11 and 12-year-old kids. Kid's interests change often enough that we should allow them the flexibility to take electives and not put a constraint on what they should be taking."

If approved, the high school redesign proposal would take effect beginning with the class of 2012. Board representatives traveled the state earlier this month to research the plan and will vote on it in November. Before the plan goes into effect, it must be approved by the Idaho Legislature, but in the mean time, Boise School District officials say they're already working on strategies to implement the proposal as not to get caught off guard, Coberly said.

The plan's fate in the upcoming Legislative session is uncertain, according to Rep. Jana Kemp (R-Boise). "As it was presented in the 2005 session, it was made clear that some change is needed. In Idaho and nationally, our high school graduation successes is not at the level our Idaho legislators would like to see. Based on that foundation of belief that things do need to get better, I think there will be openness to looking at what ends up being proposed. Until we see what the next generation of the proposal will be, there's no way to see what the legislators will do."

The freshman legislator, who is the only Ada County representative on the Education Committee, said she's concerned the proposal may be too demanding for students who may not want to go to college.

"The challenge is not every high school graduate wants, intends to or needs to go to college. There are a lot of other approaches to continue education, so that being said, I think that creating a grad requirement that forces every student to pass the college entrance criteria is unrealistic and, in some ways, it's unfair."

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