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Oregon’s Overhaul of High School Gets Mixed Grades

August 20, 1994

SALEM, Ore. (AP) _ Quentin Hagewood proudly recalls the computer-assisted presentation on rain forests that helped him become one of the first students in the nation to earn a ″certificate of initial mastery.″

″I was showing that I could use technology, and I gave a persuasive speech against destruction of the rain forests,″ the 16-year-old says.

A classmate, Amber Davis, also remembers, with no particular pride, her final presentation to a panel of teachers and parents to earn the same certificate.

Among other things, Amber, 15, demonstrated that she knew how to make transparencies used in overhead projectors to flash images on big screens.

″I wasn’t scared about doing the presentation, because there wasn’t much to it,″ she says. ″A 2-year-old could have done it.″

Quentin and Amber were among 100 sophomores at Cottage Grove High School who made history in June when they were awarded certificates of initial mastery, a prime underpinnning of Oregon’s ambitious school reform plan. As the teens’ assessments make plain, the plan is getting mixed reviews from students, as well as parents, teachers and others interested in education.

Aimed at replacing traditional credits, grades and, eventually, the high school diploma, the certificates go to students who show they can communicate, think creatively, work with others, use computers and other technology, apply math and science skills and understand diversity.

Cottage Grove’s ninth and 10th grades were the initial experiment; all Oregon high schools will use the certificates by 1996-97. Larry Austin, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education, said 17 other states ″are working together on this and are heading in the same direction.″

Oregon students will spend their final two years of high school pursuing what’s called a certificate of advanced mastery. They’ll be required to choose one of six career paths and spend at least part of their time in internships or jobs in their chosen fields. The paths are arts and communications, business and management, industry and engineering, health services, human resources, and natural resources.

Some critics worry the changes will water down the traditional high school curriculum. Others, including the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, say the state doesn’t have the money right now to overhaul its high schools.

Opponents tried but failed to round up enough signatures to put a repeal referendum on this fall’s ballot, but they say they will ask the 1995 Legislature to put the brakes on the program.

Supporters voice strong belief in the direction of the reform. Krista Parent, head of instruction at Cottage Grove High School, says traditional education’s emphasis on rote memorization of facts fails to prepare students for today’s workplace.

″Before, we were only presenting information in a way that required kids to memorize the information long enough to regurgitate it on a test,″ she says. ″When the test was over, most of that information basically was forgotten.″

Oregon’s reform effort has the backing of the Clinton administration.

″We think it’s good that Oregon has adopted the certificate of initial mastery,″ says Mike Cohen, senior adviser to Education Secretary Richard Riley. ″It sends a very important signal to students that performance counts, how well they do counts.

″School is not about accumulating seat time. It’s about learning,″ Cohen says.

Janice Kinkade, whose daughter Karen was one of the Cottage Grove sophomores who received certificates of initial mastery, is skeptical.

″They didn’t have set science or history programs. I had no idea she wasn’t learning those things,″ Kinkade says. ″It’s discouraging to parents because our kids are the guinea pigs.″

Amber Davis echoes that sentiment. She says students spent much of their time writing essays describing their feelings about themselves and their interaction with others.

″I don’t feel like I know anything,″ Amber says. ″A friend of mine goes to a different school. She talks about all these different things she’s learning. I can’t compare with her.″

Oregon School Superintendent Norma Paulus and other backers of the reform plan say they’re convinced students will end up knowing more and able to do more.

Paulus says establishing a clearer connection between schoolwork and the workplace will make lessons more relevant for students in the long run. And she says Oregon’s program represents an effort to meet the needs of work-bound as well as college-bound students.

″All children, whether they’re going to be brain surgeons, historians or nurses, will need more professional technical training,″ Paulus says.

She gets only agreement from the state’s largest business lobbying group, which has promised to try to fend off any attempts to derail education reform.

″What business people want is a person who can apply what they’ve learned,″ says Julie Brandis, spokeswoman for Associated Oregon Industries.

″It doesn’t help to know geometry unless you can apply it. If you are just memorizing formulas, it is worthless.″

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