Changing Standards

Getting a high school diploma will be harder this year.



When the 2000-2001 Memphis City Schools district report card was released by the state last November, it was littered with Ds and Fs, the occasional B, a rare A. But one section was blank, almost ominously so. The Gateway exams: Algebra I, English II, and Biology I. Instead of a grade, the report card simply read, "To be administered beginning 2001-02."

But it wasn't just Memphis' report card. Every school system in the state faces the same challenge this year. For some systems, however, that blank is scarier than for others.

This year's incoming high school freshmen will be the first class required to pass the Gateway exam in order to graduate. The Gateway is composed of three exit exams: Algebra I, English II, and Biology I. In comparison, the TCAP, required for graduation before 2001, tested eighth-grade-level language and mathematics skills. Last year, there were Memphis area students who didn't pass the TCAP after multiple tries, and the Gateway promises to be even more challenging.

Those students who have dropped out of school and are looking toward their GED will also have a tougher time of it. In January, the new version of the GED, or General Education Development test, will be introduced. Lee McGarity, with Memphis City Schools' Office of Research and Evaluation, says she doesn't know much about the new GED test yet, only that it will be more difficult.

When proctors begin administering the new test, anyone who hasn't passed all of the five subsections -- Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, Language Arts Writing, and Language Arts Reading -- will have to start completely over. This means that people who have passed Social Studies but have yet to beat the Math section are lining up in droves to take the old GED before it's too late.

"[The GED testing office] is totally booked for the year," says McGarity. The staff administers the test to 25 people a day, Monday through Thursday.

The GED was created so WWII veterans could get their high school equivalency and go on to college. These days, 800,000 adults take the test each year. That doesn't mean 800,000 get their high school equivalency each year, though.

"There's a misconception with the GED that it's easy, that it's not challenging, that anyone can walk in and pass it. That's not true," says Matthew Sharp, a staff member in charge of GED classes at Memphis City Schools' Messick Adult Center.

During the 2000 calendar year, the MCS GED testing office administered the test to 2,091 people. Only 1,013, or roughly less than half, passed. In fact, the test is designed so that not all high school seniors would be able to take it and pass.

"If you came to my office," says McGarity, "and you didn't have your high school diploma, but you had your GED, I would hire you. It's that rigorous."

But some have argued that the test doesn't really do much for the people who pass it. Statistics show they don't earn that much more money in their lifetime with their GED than they do without it. But McGarity says the equivalency diploma is meant to be a bridge, bringing someone who for whatever reason left school back to their education.

The work they have to put into getting their GED gives them the study habits to go on to the next level of education. It's recommended that each GED candidate take a class or barring that, study two hours five days a week.

Messick offers year-round preparatory classes for the GED, teaching to those adults between a ninth- and 12th-grade skill level on the test subjects.

"We have to develop the skills of individuals to enable them to pass," says Sharp.

But Messick isn't the only school concerned with developing skills. Both Memphis and Shelby County high schools have been busy readying their students -- and preparing various remedial programs -- for the Gateway.

The state department of education released sample tests of both the Algebra I and the Biology I Gateway tests last week. As of this writing, school officials don't know when they will receive their first set of test scores or when ninth-graders this year will take the Gateway tests.

They do know the tests will be given at or near the end of the particular course. Students who do not pass will have multiple opportunities to retake the tests.

McGarity, who oversees both the GED testing office and Gateway testing for the Memphis City Schools, says she doesn't know why the tests are becoming more difficult this year.

Perhaps the tests are a product of a changing skill set for the modern workforce. The Gateway focuses more on students' foundational thinking and problem-solving skills, while the updated GED is geared toward business-related problems. Either way, the hoped-for result is that the new diploma holders will be ready for the world after high school.

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