Question & Answer: High school pilot project aims to raise college prep

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Many questions surround a pilot program being considered by the Tupelo and Corinth school districts that would allow high school students to earn college credit or even graduate early.
The two districts are among seven in the state that were invited by the Mississippi Department of Education to participate.
The Tupelo school board last week approved the district’s participation in the program, and Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said he expects his district to do the same.
The program would also need to be approved by the state board of education, which is expected to vote on it at its January meeting.
Students would enroll in the program as freshmen and would study four core subjects plus a fine arts course. By the end of their sophomore year, they would take a board examination in each course based upon international guidelines.
Those who pass that exam would have four options:
– Enroll in an upper division of the program with college preparatory classes and an opportunity to earn college credit.
– Graduate and enroll in a community college.
– Graduate and move to the workforce.
– Remain in the program to further sharpen their skills.
Also invited to participate are the Jackson, Madison County, Gulfport, Canton and Clarksdale school districts. Other districts may become involved, as well. The MDE will host a meeting on Jan. 10 for those districts who want to learn more about it, and New Albany Superintendent Charles Garrett said his district is eager to get more information.
Below are the answers to a few of the many questions raised by a program that reflects a dramatic switch from the traditional high school structure.

Q: Who came up with this idea? Has it been tried anywhere else?
A: The pilot program resulted from research done by the National Center on Education and the Economy, a not-for-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. Since 1989, the NCEE has studied countries that typically outperform others in international comparisons of academic achievement. It discovered that most such countries use rigorous board examination systems.
This model is based on the best practices of other nations, but it has not yet been used in the United States.

Q: What’s the primary purpose of the program beyond providing more options for students?
A: The NCEE’s goal appears to be improving students’ readiness for college and careers. Its presentation to Mississippi superintendents about the pilot contained the following statistic: Only 18 percent of America’s high school freshmen will earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within three to six years of graduating from high school. From reading their literature, that appears to be the primary statistic they’re trying to improve.

Q: Who can participate?
A: The program will be available to all students, both high and low academic performers.
Both Childress and Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver say they expect a cohort of 32 to 35 students to participate when the program begins in the fall.
Shaver said at a recent school board meeting that if the demand is higher, the district will try to accommodate more students.

Q: How will students cram four years of studies into two years?
A: For one, the curriculum would be much more clearly focused on the skills students need to master, and thus teachers and students would be able to move through it more quickly. The program of study also would be centered on the four core subjects, plus two years of arts instruction, with less time spent on electives.
Finally, unlike the current high school model, this program will not be based on Carnegie units. Carnegie units define how many seat hours a student must spend in a course. Under the pilot, students will be able to advance once they’ve mastered the material.

Q: How will the program reduce the dropout rate when coursework and tests will be more challenging than the norm?
A: Educators claim that a significant number of bright students become bored with school and drop out when they turn 16. They claim many of those students are on pace to graduate but choose to leave early. Their belief is that the more demanding curriculum, and the opportunity to earn a diploma at 16, will motivate those students.

Q: Will students in the program still be able to participate in athletics and extra-curricular activities?
A: Students in the program will be able to participate as any other student. The question will be whether they will want to give up two years of participation by leaving high school early.
In truth, those students who are excited about athletics and extracurricular programs will likely not be the ones who will choose to leave early. If they pass their board examinations as sophomores, they will be able to enroll in the upper-division courses, remain in the lower division to improve their skills or spend their final two years in the traditional school.
The option to leave school early will be most appealing to students who don’t enjoy the current social structure of high school.

Q: It says that students who complete this program at 16 could enroll in community colleges. Can they enroll in universities?
A: Students who pass their board exams and complete the program as sophomores will earn a high school diploma at that time. They could certainly apply to a university and attend, if they are accepted.
However, the lower division of the program is not designed to prepare students for selective universities. By selective universities, it is referring to any university that requires students to apply for admission.
Instead, the program is set up so that students who pass their boards as sophomores would meet the criteria of open-admission universities and colleges, schools like Mississippi’s community colleges, that require only require a high school diploma or a GED. Students who pass their board exams would be guaranteed being able to enroll in those schools without the need for taking remedial courses.
The program’s upper division is designed to prepare students for more selective universities that require applications. However, students in that program would be able to earn college credits.

Q: How is a board examination different from a state test?
A: Unlike current state examinations that feature multiple-choice questions, board examinations will force students to draw upon much more extensive knowledge. They will feature essay, short answer and specific fill-in-the-blank questions. Participating schools would be able to choose from four different companies that offer board examinations.

Q: What happens if a student wants to return to traditional high school?
A: A student will be able to return to traditional high school courses at any time. The Mississippi Department of Education will determine a formula for translating time in the program into traditional Carnegie units.
Q: What type of student will this program help?
A: The program is open to all students. Higher achievers who pass their board exams as sophomores will be able to enroll in higher-division courses designed to prepare them for selective universities.
Students who don’t pass their board exams would be able remain in the program with a focus on the subjects in which they didn’t do well. They could then retake the test, and hopefully gain skills for “college readiness” by their senior year.
Superintendents also have mentioned the program could help with dropout prevention by motivating bright students who become bored with school and drop out early.

Q: Are 16-year-olds ready for college?
A: In many countries, students finish their secondary education by age 16. Many leaders involved with this program say that some 16-year-olds may not be socially ready to live on a college campus, but they would be ready to do college-level work. Those students could commute to school or take online classes. Some high schools also may expand dual-enrollment classes that would allow students to earn credit without leaving their high-school campus.

Q: Will students be tracked according to ability level, as they are in other nations?
A: A chief criticism of other nations’ education systems is that they track students at an early age and put them in different levels based upon ability. Those in lower-level courses do not receive opportunities available to students in higher-level courses.
This program, however, would be open to all students of all ability levels. In some nations, students take one high-stakes exam that will chart the course for the rest of their academic career. However, under this model, students who don’t pass their board exams will have multiple opportunities to retake them.
Also, this program is voluntary.

Q: How were Tupelo and Corinth chosen as pilot sites?
A: Mississippi Superintendent Tom Burnham said he chose the seven districts he did, including Tupelo and Corinth, because they were innovative and their communities would “embrace providing better options for students.” Some of the districts also had federal school improvement money, but Tupelo and Corinth don’t fall into this category.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: For a cohort of 32 students, the program would cost about $35,000 for two years. The primary costs include exam fees of $50 per student per course for five courses; teacher training, at $850 per teacher per year for three years of training; and student and teacher instructional material, at $35 per student per course for five courses

Q: How will these board examinations affect the state accountability model?
A: The Mississippi Department of Education is working on that. It will need to develop an exception in its accountability model for the students in this program. Perhaps it will find a formula to include the results on the board exams in its formula. Those changes will need to be approved by the state legislature.

Q: If students will be leaving sooner, won’t districts lose money from the state?
A: It is true that districts receive money based on average daily attendance numbers. If fewer students are enrolled, they will receive less money. That would apply only to students who chose to leave after completing the program as sophomores; districts would still receive money for those in the lower and upper divisions.
Shaver said that if those students have left, the district also won’t have the expense of educating them. Also, if those students had dropped out, the district would also not receive money for them.

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.