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Allowing kids more flexibility in how they earn high school credits, moving computer literacy to middle school and changing the way teachers grade are just a few ways Utah could potentially improve high school education and increase graduation rates, a State Office of Education Committee said Friday.

The committee spent the past nine months discussing ways to ramp up rigor in high school and college and career readiness upon graduation. It's work that began in response to criticisms from some that 12th grade is a wasted year and out of a desire to improve high school education, said Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent.

The recommendations also come on the heels of a U.S. Department of Education report that showed Utah ranks in the bottom half of the country for its high school graduation rate of 76 percent.

"Our learners need a little more flexibility," Hales said. "There's more required of them before they graduate than in other years, and it makes sense for them to be better prepared in every way possible for postsecondary [education and work]."

The committee is recommending, among other things, that the state give students more flexibility in how they earn credits toward graduation.

Under the committee's recommendations, students would still be required to earn at least 24 credits to graduate. But students would, for example, be allowed to graduate early by skipping classes such as P.E., art and career and technical education, provided they could demonstrate competency tests in those areas. Or, students could specialize their high school educations, devoting some of the credits they must now earn in P.E., art, career and technical education and electives, instead to remediation classes and/or classes better suited to their career and college plans.

The committee is also proposing Utah move its current computer literacy requirement to middle school and replace it with a civic/consumer/life skills class that would combine components of financial literacy with training for the adult world. The current financial literacy requirement would be replaced with another half credit of social studies instead.

"They're already coming to us in elementary school more digitally literate than we were when we graduated from high school," said MaryKay Kirkland, Box Elder district assistant superintendent and a committee member, of the need to require computer literacy earlier.

The committee also discussed possibly changing the way teachers grade students, such as by making sure extra credit is truly academic, not tying attendance to grades and not averaging grades over a whole year but rather grading students based on how well they've mastered certain concepts by the end of a course.

The state school board would still have to approve the recommendations, but leaders would first seek public input, and the first students who could see changes would likely be the Class of 2019, board chair Debra Roberts said. But many of those who listened to the recommendations Friday expressed optimism.

Kirkland said the flexibility in earning graduation credits could help schools better serve students with different needs.

"We don't have a lot of flexibility right now," Kirkland said, "so I think this is something districts would welcome."

And David Doty, Canyons District superintendent, on Friday said he hadn't yet taken enough of an in-depth look at the recommendations to comment on them but was encouraged to see the state looking at changes.

"It's important to have graduation requirements and expectations that are in line with the 21st century and what our students will need to succeed in college and the workplace," Doty said.

Board members also praised the recommendations though Craig Coleman expressed concerns that the civic/consumer/life skills class sounded like a "catchall."

Board member Leslie Brooks Castle also cautioned that a more efficient system won't necessarily always better prepare kids for specific careers because many don't decide on careers until well after high school.

Twitter: @lschencker

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