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Diploma program debated

2-year high school degree is planned

By Melanie Plenda
Globe Correspondent / December 21, 2008
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A four-year high school education could become less common in New Hampshire under a new state curriculum allowing some students to graduate after their sophomore year. Though the program is still in its infancy, some school officials are concerned about the social and emotional implications of 16-year-olds going off to college.

"This is so totally opposite of what I was taught education was supposed to be," said Mary Anderson, headmaster of Pinkerton Academy in Derry. "Not only will they be missing out on the high school experience, but when they leave here, most of them will be about 16 years old. That's far too young to be thrown into an environment with college students who are about 18 to 23 years old. . . . Most of them are just not mature enough to handle that."

The new model is part of a pilot pro gram initiated by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, an offshoot of the National Center on Education and the Economy, an advisory panel of school, government, business, and civic leaders. The curriculum will prepare students for community-college-level course loads beginning in ninth grade, said Lyonel B. Tracy, commissioner for the New Hampshire Department of Education. At the end of two years, students take a series of board exams. If they pass, students can graduate high school and go to community or technical college, or, in some cases, a four-year college or university.

"The purpose is to change the way education is delivered to students," said Tracy. "It will allow students who want to get on with advancing their education to do so. We are going to go slow. Here in New Hampshire, we like to do it our own way, and we want to make sure we are listening to what parents and educators want. But we are overdue for a change in our educational system."

The state planned to put together a task force before the end of the year of school superintendents, state officials, and a representative of the workforce commission to research and design the board exams and curriculum. The first students could start taking this test in about two years, Tracy said.

The program is an expansion of the existing Running Start program, which allows students to take one or two community college classes at a reduced rate for college credit while attending high school. Tracy said about 3,000 high school students in the state are currently enrolled in the Running Start program.

All students in both public and private schools would be involved in the new program and allowed to take the board exams. Funding for the program and how it will affect other financial sources for education has not been decided, Tracy said, but federal funding might be sought for the state program.

Tracy said the details of the board exams have not been determined, but in general, there will be a broad, rigorous series of tests measuring academics and other practical skills.

"The board exam would not just be an exam, but a review taken from all of the very best board reviews in the world," Tracy said. "There would also be an extended learning activity portion designed to demonstrate not only what they know but what they can do." Tracy said the exams will take into account a student's social, mental, and physical maturity level.

After the test, those who pass can decide whether they want to stay in high school while also earning a community college degree, graduate from high school and go to a community or technical college full time, or continue with the high school curriculum.

"That will be determined by the individual," he said. "We would yield to the child and parents' decision. Some will be ready and some will not."

The students with higher scores could be allowed to go to a four-year college or university.

Students can take the exams as many times as they like. Those who score well but choose to continue in high school will follow a more rigorous and accelerated curriculum, Tracy said.

Many local school officials said they like the idea of offering more college classes to high school students and making the curriculum more challenging. Nashua High School-North principal David Ryan said the move could free up resources for students who need more help in school.

Many school officials say they are concerned about a test being comprehensive enough to determine a student's overall readiness for college.

"There are some students who would be successful taking the next step in their life," said William Hagen, Salem High School's principal. "My concern is that a test, I would suspect, would focus on content, and there are skills and experiences a student gets in high school that this test might not be able to capture."

Ryan also said he is not convinced that students will be ready to leave high school at 16. "I've unfortunately seen some of the poor decision-making some 16-year-olds use, behind the wheel of a car, for example," Ryan said. "I just don't think we as educators are done with them at 16."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at plendame@gmail.com.

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