Proposal Calls for Students To Show Mastery of Skills

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Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington State has proposed an overhaul of the state's education system that could make grades, grade levels, and high-school diplomas irrelevant and obsolete.

The proposal, which still must be approved by the legislature, would eliminate most state education standards and requirements, such as the number and types of courses needed for high-school graduation.

Instead, elementary and high-school students would be required to meet statewide performance standards that will be developed by a new state commission. Local educators would be given wide latitude in determining how their students would meet these standards.

"What we're arguing for is a totally new system," said Ronn Robinson, the Democratic Governor's executive policy assistant on education. "If we can agree on what the goals and standards are, then we don't have to worry about how [schools] get them done."

The proposal, which was unveiled last month, is closely modeled on recommendations issued last year by the National Commission on the Skills of the American Work Force.

The panel, which included business, education, labor, government, and civic leaders, called for all teenagers by about age 16 to earn a national "certificate of initial mastery" as a prerequisite to employment or further education and training. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

Mr. Gardner appears to be the first Governor to have incorporated many of the report's recommendations--including the creation of a certificate that could supersede a high-school diploma--into his legislative agenda.

But a number of other states are also seriously considering the panel's views, said William Maroni, the acting staff director for the report's implementation. "Governors in about 10 states have said, 'I want to make this happen in my state,"' he said.

Under Mr. Gardner's plan, all students would have to demonstrate mastery of the basic skills, including reading, writing, speaking, computing, and critical thinking, by the end of elementary school.

By the end of high school, students would earn certificates by demonstrating competency in core subject areas, including English, mathematics, history, science/technology, and critical thinking and analysis. They would also have to complete a year-long interdisciplinary project.

Performance standards, as well as the statewide assessments for these skills and subject areas, would be selected by the new commission. The panel, which would include seven public members as well as the state superintendent, the president of the state board of education, and three other educators, would consider projects, portfolios, and examinations as potential assessment methods.

By the 1993-94 school year, the new assessments would be in place and existing standardized tests for students in grades 4, 8, and 11 would be eliminated.

All Carnegie units, or course credits, would be abolished. Although the state would no longer require students to take classes outside of the core-competency areas to graduate, schools would have to provide students with "learning opportunities" in such subjects as health and physical education, foreign languages, and art. They could also opt to maintain all aspects of their current program.

Mr. Robinson said the proposed measure is deliberately "vague" about when in their academic careers students would have to meet the statewide standards. He acknowledged that grade levels, grades, and the high-school diploma could become irrelevant if a student's main educational goal was demonstrating mastery on the state tests.

The proposal's prospects in the legislature seem uncertain, however.

Representative W. Kim Peery, the Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee, said that while he supports the Governor's plan, he would favor "leaving the basic education program in place while the commission does its work."

"[The proposal] raises questions, but it also brings together a firm direction for change that is on virtually everyone's list," he said.

Senator Cliff Bailey, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he supports the idea of creating better assessments. But he argued that the proposal will not succeed unless other education programs are better funded.

The Governor's proposed education budget, also released last month, includes $1.7 million to establish the commission and $16 million to fund fully preschool for all 4-year-olds from low-income families.

Other education programs were not fully funded, however, and the state is entering a period of fiscal austerity after previously enjoying a budget surplus. (See Education Week, Dec. 5, 1990.)

"I'm not thrilled until I see the dollars," said Mr. Bailey. "Until we provide for those kids with programs, it's an empty promise."

"Probably the most positive thing we see right now is that it would relax rules and regulations that inhibit local school districts," said Ricardo Sanchez, a spokesman for the state education department.

But, "it's kind of a shell of a proposal," Mr. Sanchez added. "It's as if none of this reform will cost any money."

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