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Friday, November 21, 2014         

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Reconsider diploma decision


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The newly appointed members of the state Board of Education, just sworn in yesterday, undoubtedly have a lot on their plate, including simply getting acclimated to their new volunteer posts. There is one matter, however, they should take up before too long: rethinking the position taken last week by the old board on the issue of high school diplomas.

The state Department of Education has already embarked on a program of raising graduation requirements, with its optional "Step Up" diploma, aimed at improving student readiness for careers and college. More recently, however, officials have advocated a more rigorous course of study before graduation. Hawaii is now one of 35 states enrolled in a national movement known as the American Diploma Project Network.

The mission is to raise the value of the diploma by requiring more science, math and English composition study so that when students emerge from high school, their skills more closely line up with what employers expect.

The DOE wants tougher graduation requirements — in which students would need an expository writing class and more math and science credits, including Algebra 2 and biology — and the administration wants it to be the rule, not the exception. We agree. For the Class of 2018, according to the DOE timetable, the stricter diploma track would be the norm, and students wishing to opt out would need parental clearance to do so.

But what the old board did was simply lay down two alternative tracks, leaving it to the kids to choose.

Clearly, public school students need a firmer nudge than that. Members of the Hawaii P-20 Council, the coalition of educational leaders and institutions aiming to enhance student chances for success, have voiced concern about recent anecdotal and test data. Even students who don't plan to pursue a college career are finding it harder to pass apprenticeship tests for blue-collar jobs that pay a livable wage.

And the military track, always considered a viable employment option with a high school diploma, may be closed off to Hawaii kids as well. According to a report by The Education Trust, Hawaii high school graduates had the highest failure rate nationwide on the Army's entrance exam: 38.3 percent.

Students who would like to get post-secondary credentials by following the community college route also can be frustrated. John Morton, the University of Hawaii vice president for community colleges, said increasingly students find themselves scoring low on placement exams and then routed to remedial courses instead of the college-level study they want to pursue. That's discouraging, he said, and many abandon that ambition.

All of these observations should suffice as red, flashing warning signals that a course correction is needed. Unfortunately, the recent BOE action was insufficient and should be revisited.

Making the new rules effective for 2018 seniors should allow time for schools to prepare, ensuring that enough higher-level math and science teachers are on board. The DOE needs to consider what tutoring is available for students, to help them reach for that raised bar. The retention of a less-rigorous diploma track will provide the fail-safe for students who, for whatever reason, simply aren't suited to this course, but the resources to encourage them must be in place.

The expectations of the 21st century workforce are higher than ever. The public school system that's meant to churn out students prepared to meet them obviously has some broken gears. Job No. 1 for the new school board should be to repair them, and authorizing stricter diploma requirements is a good first step.






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