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Center Presses 'Certificate of Initial Mastery'

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The National Center on Education and the Economy last week unveiled a detailed plan for a national system to award high school students a certificate based on their accomplishments in key subjects.

Sponsors said the proposed "certificate of initial mastery'' could someday supersede the high school diploma as the basic educational credential sought by employers and colleges.

The system would be managed by the New Standards Project, an existing effort co-sponsored by the national center to develop a multistate system of performance assessments.

States and districts wishing to participate would agree on a core set of content standards in English/language arts, mathematics, science, and "applied learning,'' which includes such generic skills as problem-solving and using technology. They would also agree on how well students must perform to meet the standards.

States and localities could add further requirements to the common core for the certificates awarded in their jurisdictions.

"Today a high school diploma is proof of attendance, not of achievement,'' said Frank Shrontz, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Boeing Company, during a meeting held here last week to present the design to educators and policymakers from 27 states. "It means very little as an objective standard of accomplishment.''

In contrast, the certificate of initial mastery would be based on what students have learned rather than the time spent in school.

Most youths would earn the certificate by age 16. But some could achieve it as early as age 14, and all but the most severely disabled would be expected to attain it before leaving high school.

"All over the world,'' said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the center, "where you get high performance, there are clear standards and there are clear connections between meeting those standards and getting what you want in life--except here in the United States.''

But the proposal received a skeptical reception from some conference participants, who suggested trying to improve the traditional diploma rather than setting up a whole new system.

National Recognition Stressed

The center first proposed the certificate in its 1990 report, "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.'' (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

Since then, six states--Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Washington--have enacted policies that could eventually require students to earn a certificate. All but Indiana are members of the New Standards Project.

Last week's proposal would insure that students who receive a certificate from one state or district have met essentially the same standard of accomplishment as those in another.

"The power of a certificate in any state is far less if that certificate is accepted nowhere else,'' argued Mr. Tucker. "The value is enormous if you have earned a certificate and it is recognized all over the country.''

Participating states and districts would have to join New Standards, at a cost ranging between $100,000 and $500,000 a year.

The standards project's governing board would set the standards for the certificate, which would be benchmarked to those in countries whose students perform best in each of the core subjects.

States or districts could participate in New Standards without adopting the certificate system. The standards project now includes 19 states and six school districts, not all of whom are moving toward a certificate of initial mastery.

Based on Portfolios

To attain the certificate, students would complete a portfolio of work accumulated over several years. The portfolio would contain the results of long-term projects and investigations, as well as papers and performance assessments.

The standards project would develop an auditing system, run by the states, to insure that all the participants were grading the portfolios to the same standard. But each state would determine its own rules for awarding certificates.

There would be two passing levels--pass and pass with distinction. In addition, there would be three levels below passing, to let students know how far they had to go to achieve the certificate.

Students would compile evidence of their accomplishments as they went along, much like merit badges in Scouting. Once they had met the standards in all core subjects, they would receive the certificate.

They would then have a variety of options. Students could start college without leaving high school, by taking Advanced Placement courses or the equivalent of the International Baccalaureate Program. They could prepare for admission to a selective college, much as they do today.

Alternatively, students could begin a program of professional and technical education leading to a skills certificate and college credit. Or they could go directly into the workforce.

The certificate could also be awarded to out-of-school youths and adults who met the standards.

'Yet Another Credential'

The certificate would motivate students, Mr. Tucker said, by sending a "sign and a signal that we expect more and we are going to get more.''

But some of those at the conference raised doubts about the plan.

"Let's examine what the real potential impact will be of providing yet another credential in addition to the diploma,'' warned Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "I think states shouldn't rush into this.''

Mr. Ambach said the chiefs have been working to strengthen the existing high school diploma, by building high standards of achievement into it.

"If a diploma is genuinely a representation of achievement and not seat time,'' he suggested, "then the key question is, what can a certificate concept add?''

He also questioned whether the portfolios could meet the standards for validity and reliability now required for high-stakes assessments.

Others said they viewed the center's recommendation that states legislate the certificate as yet another top-down reform proposal.

"I'm highly skeptical,'' said Cynthia Levinson, the executive assistant to the associate commissioner of curriculum, assessment, and textbooks in Texas. "I'm not yet convinced that it's obstacles to the certificate of initial mastery that we should focus our energies on in our states.''

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