JEFFERSON CITY - Exit testing to obtain a state endorsed diploma could become the next hurdle for Missouri high school seniors after the State Board of Education adopted a multi-tiered public education plan to guide statewide schools toward the next century.
But the newest hurdle may not be as tall as some would like.
The proposed high-stakes testing policy, though still tentative in design, would not necessarily suspend the graduation of non-passing students. Instead, the policy suggests competent seniors would have a Board of Education seal of approval affixed on their diplomas.
"We have to ask, 'What does that seal mean?'" said Bruce Brotzman, principal for Rock Bridge High School. "Is it like giving little kids who do well a sticker? The seal itself, I'm not sure is all that meaningful."
Endorsement from the Board of Education would, said a state education official, become the desired goal for high school students.
"It's certainly not an end of the 12th-grade sink-or-swim final exam," said James Morris, director of public information from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "That's not what we favor, it's not constructive. It puts too much pressure on the kids."
Rep. Jim Murphy, R-St. Louis County, a member of the House Appropriations Committee for Education, welcomed the notion of exit testing for students. Murphy said the testing was long overdue, but faulted the Board for hesitating to declare the tests vital for graduation.
"The State Board of Education has to get steel in their spine," Murphy said. "They have to ask themselves why they're there. If they allow students to graduate without passing the tests the certification won't mean anything. Frankly, I think it's an insult to the taxpayers of Missouri for not requiring the students to live up to expectations."
A call to coordinate the existing MAP examinations taken by Missouri high schoolers into a package that would progressively evaluate students for certification is one of the ideas the Board is mulling. MAP testing's present framework includes series' of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions followed by a performance-based portion - for example, an essay composed by the student.
"The nature of the assessment is the key," said Brotzman. "It should be something beyond a paper and pencil test. If it's another multiple choice kind of a test, I don't know how authentic it would be."
The Missouri State Teacher's Association, concerned by the increase of state-control the Board's public education plan would warrant, is reluctant to express immediate approval, said Bruce Moe, MSTA's director of communications.
"They're trying to use both the approach of the carrot and the stick to make students take the tests seriously," Moe said. "We just want to see more. A state-mandated plan is not necessarily the best choice."
The long-range plan, approved unanimously by the Board on Thursday, capsules more than two dozen recommendations for local school districts to implement.
"At this point it doesn't change anything," Morris said. "In some ways we're putting things on the horizon. We stated our goals - we don't yet have a prescription on how to achieve them. Our explicit goal is that this document will serve as a guide for the first decade of the next century."
Entitled, "Meeting the Challenge," Morris said each of the plan's recommendations have their own requirements for implementation. Some could be put into action immediately while others must pass legislation or require additional funding.
But together, he said, they could catapult Missouri's public education system, mired in the middle of the pack nationally, into one of the nation's top five programs.
Some of the plan's major recommendations include:
*Implementing a comprehensive K-14 Plan which would provide financial access to at least two years of education after high school for eligible students.
*Adopting formal security plans for every building on school campuses.
*Alotting additional time and special assistance for students not making satisfactory progress - this includes Saturday classes or part-time and full-time summer programs.
focusing more on math and reading skills in elementary education.
*Providing all with access to preschool and child care opportunities.
*Developing the system for recruiting a retaining quality teacher and school leaders.
"Our attitude about education is, yes, we've made progress but we need to build," Morris said. "The world is changing faster and faster and the kids simply need to learn more."