Lawmaker proposes special diploma to help high schoolers get community college credit

The Arizona Capitol Times
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Griselda Nevarez, Cronkite News Service

A state lawmaker is proposing a new diploma that would allow high school students to attend community colleges or technical schools as early as sophomore year.

Rep. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said the Grand Canyon Diploma would address the problem of high school students who meet the AIMS test standards early and simply coast toward graduation.

“The biggest problem we are trying to solve here is that … students don’t take as much academic rigors as they could, they don’t take as many courses as they could because they have already passed their graduation exam their sophomore year,” Crandall said.

His bill would provide students who have passing grades and pass a set of tests more comprehensive than AIMS the opportunity to attend community college or career-education programs full time or take part in a high school program designed to prepare them for college.

Under the bill, a portion of the tax money that now goes to school districts would help defray tuition at higher-education programs, though students would be responsible for any difference.

H2731 won committee approval and was heading for the House floor by way of the Rules Committee.

A 2009 ACT report said that only 26 percent of high school graduates in Arizona were ready for college-level coursework. Crandall said the state can improve that by helping students take college classes before graduating from high school.

Eight states offer similar programs, according to the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit group that designs curriculum and exams for the participating states.

Superintendent Tom Horne said he agrees with the concept of allowing students to move on to college when they are ready but is concerned about what the required examination would include.

“We want to be sure that students demonstrate knowledge of history and science and not the normally tested reading and math” he said.

Sybil Francis, executive director of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit group that helped draft the bill, said the diploma isn’t intended to eliminate the high school experience for promising students.

“We’re not talking about cutting people’s education short; we’re talking about giving students the power over their own future to make decisions about how they spend their time and how they get to where they want to go,” she said.

Francis said the AIMS test, which is set at a 10th-grade level, gives students the wrong message about what they should be striving for.

“If we’re telling them this is what you need to know before you can graduate, that’s what they’re going to aim for,” she said.

The bill would require the Arizona State Board of Education to select a private organization to develop the examination required for a Grand Canyon Diploma as well as a year-long program of study to prepare students.

John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, said he agrees with the move-on-when-ready concept of the bill but is concerned about changing state requirements for graduation and the meaning of a high school diploma.

“We need to have some concurrence not just among lawmakers but among citizens and leaders about what we believe a high school diploma in Arizona means and whether are we prepared for a new system that has potentially two meanings,” he said.

Mike Smith, legislative consultant for Arizona School Administrators, said he’s concerned about what might constitute the examination required for a Grand Canyon Diploma.

“The bill is very ambiguous about whether this is a different curriculum from what we’ve been following or if it’s the same curriculum in a more intense way,” he said.

Justin Olson, senior research analyst for the Arizona Tax Research Association, said the bill isn’t clear enough about how taxpayer money would be split between high school districts and higher-education programs.

“We don’t want students to be double-counted when it comes to being funded by the state,” he said.