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Utah's high school graduation rate is embarrassingly low. At 76 percent of public school students earning a diploma, Utah ranks in the bottom half of all states.
Now, in response to criticism last year that 12th grade is a waste of time, a committee is recommending some changes to grading and graduation requirements. Still lacking in details, some of the suggestions presented to the State Office of Education may be helpful, especially for high-achieving students. But as a way of helping more children succeed, not just in high school but in earlier grades, and to boost the number graduating, the ideas miss the mark.
The changes would give some students the option of graduating early by letting them "test out" of certain required classes such as physical education, art and technical or career classes. Passing competency tests or switching those classes for remediation or career-oriented courses could ensure that seniors aren't spinning their wheels.
Allowing teachers to grade students, not on an average of their grades throughout the semester but on how well they can show they have mastered the concepts taught, makes some sense. So does not tying attendance directly to grading. But that kind of flexibility might lead some students who are not self-starters to believe they can wait until the end of the semester and then cram to turn in assignments.
Many public schools are too regimented. There is often too much busy work, and with curriculum geared toward students in the middle of the achievement curve, the brightest on one end and the low-achievers on the other often don't get the guidance and help they need.
As an effort to fix this deficiency, the changes proposed by the committee are worth some thorough study.
But in implementing more flexibility, school districts must guard against making graduation requirements more lax. They should not lower standards in order to raise graduation rates.
Beyond that concern is what should be obvious: Success in high school depends to a large degree on how much students learn in elementary school and even before they enter first grade. Students who are promoted to the next grade when they are not ready, and students from at-risk homes who lag behind their classmates in the first three years of school, too often drop out, even before they reach high school.
All-day kindergarten, early-childhood education and smaller early-grade classes should be the focus for long-term improvement in Utah's disturbingly low graduation rate.
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