Connecticut part of project to reinvent high school

Just 16, and off to college?

That could become an option for high school sophomores in Connecticut, one of eight states named Wednesday to pilot test a rigorous new system, including board examinations, that would mark a dramatic shift in the traditional notion of high school education.

By fall of 2011, those states will begin testing a system of coursework and tests that has been widely used in other nations to bolster academic standards and prepare students for college, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) announced.

The Board Examination system has been used in places such as Australia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland, Singapore, and parts of Canada and Germany but has been missing from U.S. schools, the NCEE said.

“This is about implementing the best the world has to offer,” said Marc Tucker, president of NCEE, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has pushed for higher academic standards.

Under the proposed system, students who volunteer to take the exam and pass it at the end of 10th grade would be eligible to enroll at any open admissions two-year or four-year college in their state. In Connecticut, that would be the two-year Community College System.

“It would be a significant change. As a culture, we’re geared toward thinking of four years of high school,” said Everett Lyons, principal of Bristol Eastern High School and one of several educators who attended a recent briefing on the proposal. He said some students are ready for college or employment early while others are tempted to slack off, especially during their senior year.

If they are ready, he said, “Why hold them for two more years in this holding pattern? I think it has a great deal of merit.”

Those who do not pass the lower division high school exams will be offered a customized program designed to help them succeed on their next attempt.  Students who pass the exams also could choose to remain in school and take an advanced upper division program preparing them for admission to selective colleges.

Tucker said NCEE hopes to sharply increase the number of students ready to succeed in college without having to take remedial courses. Nationwide, many high school graduates are unprepared for college work. In Connecticut, officials at the state’s two-year community colleges estimate 60 to 70 percent of students signing up for degree programs are in need of remedial work.

At the Connecticut State University System, more than half of new students are enrolled in developmental or remedial math courses, according to the State Department of Higher Education.

The NCEE first proposed the Board Examination system in 2006, as part of a package of school reforms aimed at improving workforce competitiveness. The reform package has since been endorsed by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, and by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The proposed Board Examination system includes a core program of courses, teaching materials matched to a well-designed syllabus, high-quality exams and professional training for teachers.

The system most likely would require states to pass legislation allowing a new path to a diploma, Tucker said. It is designed to encourage students to take tougher courses and work harder in order to be ready for college or the workforce, he said.

“For the first time in the United States, kids will know what they have to do, whether they want to be a carpenter, a plumber or a brain surgeon,” he said.

Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont will work with NCEE through a $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pilot test the new curriculum, teacher training and exams.

Each state will select between 10 and 20 schools to pilot test the system beginning with the 2011-12 school year.

The board exams and curriculum will be aligned with a series of new voluntary national standards under development by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Participating states will approve up to five Board Examination programs and invite high schools to pilot one or more of those programs for freshmen and sophomores and one or more for juniors and seniors.

The performance-based approach marks a shift from the traditional system requiring students to put in their time and accumulate credits.

“It is consistent with what we’ve wanted to do with secondary school reform,” said Connecticut Education Commissioner Mark McQullan. For some students, the new tests could be an alternative to the Connecticut Academic Performance Test now required of all 10th-graders, he said.

McQuillan has been an advocate for high school reform and has proposed plans that include performance exams for key subjects and provisions allowing early admission to college. “We wanted to get kids through faster and hook them up to college faster,” he said. If the proposed system proves to be successful, “it could be quite transformative,” he said.

Calvin Brown, 17, a junior at Bristol Eastern High School, said such an approach would  appeal to “students who are willing and ready to get out there and take hold of their future and not waste time. There are a lot of kids who definitely could go off to college now, a lot of people better off out there working. It’s good to have those options open.”

The idea “sounds great to me,” said 17-year-old Hunter Kodama, a senior at Norwich Free Academy.  “Not every student is bound for college, but some students are ready for college before others.”

Kodama, a student representative on the State Board of Education, said the idea of testing for college readiness as a sophomore “sounds intriguing. . . . I’m sure I would have attempted it at least.”

Wednesday’s announcement also drew praise from David Carter, chancellor of the Connecticut State University System. “There are a number of students who right now are capable of completing high school [early],” he said. “If you’re capable, why not go ahead and challenge yourself?

“I’m excited by it,” he said. “I think it could end up motivating other students who might not be thinking of college.”

However, state Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti said he’s not convinced of the value of the program. Even if they pass the exams as sophomores, most high-performing students will opt to remain in high school to prepare for selective colleges, he said, and he questioned whether the system would help low-performing students.

The Board Examination system uses a series of existing tests and provides a faster, cheaper and surer way to catch the United States up to the best performing countries than by developing new tests and teaching systems, according to the NCEE.

“Students who pass these exams will meet international standards, not just national standards,” the NCEE said. “The examinations these programs use are much better at measuring the kinds of analytical skills that will make America competitive than the kinds of tests most states now use.”