How much should a high school student know or be able to accomplish before earning a high school diploma?
Fairfax County school authorities are wrestling with that question now as they develop minimum requirements a high school student must meet to graduate.
If a list of proposed minimum requirements is approved by the Fairfax County School Board next Thursday, Fairfax County high school students will, before graduating, have to be able to read a charge account statement, fill out a tax form, count correct change from $10, know the name of the governor of Virginia and know where to get information on job openings.
These requirements are numbered among 83 "minimum competencies" that high school graduates should possess, according to a special school-citizen task force that has been developing the requirements since January.
The effort to make sure that high school graduates know basic information and can perform basic skills an adult uses in society is a national one. Fifteen other states require that students prove they hve at least minimal skills and several more states are studying the possibility of establishing similar requirements.
The Virginia State Board of Education in 1976 required that, beginning with this year's ninth-graders, all Virginia students prove that they can read, write and do basic arithmetic. The state left it to local schools to identify the specific skills a student would need to be considered minimally competent and to judge how a student performed those skills.
"(Minimal competencies) are an assurance that a student who has a high school diploma can fill out an application or take message over the phone," said Ronald J. Savage, Fairfax schools curriculum specialist who helped develop the proposed list of minimal competency requirements. "No kid doing well in school is going to have problems with these requirements. They are designed to pick up the student who is already having trouble and making sure he knows how to do some basic stuff before he gets a diploma."
Arlington County has developed a list of requirements similar to Fairfax County's and has developed a test for basic skills it will give to ninth-graders in February. Alexandria has not developed a list or a test yet, but will study minimum competencies at its school board meeting Wednesday.
Fairfax County school officials have not decided whether to give countywide tests to judge students' competency or leave it to teachers to track how their students are learning basic skills, Savage said. He added that developing countywide competency requirements "sort of indicates the logic of giving a countywide test to see if those requirements were met."
Parents and teachers to whom the list of minimum requirements were sent for review have shown "general satisfaction" with items on the list, Savage said, although the minimum competency program has generated "relatively little interest at this stage of the game."
"When we start assessing student to find out whether they meet the competency requirements, well, that's when we are going to see some interest," Savage said.
A public hearing on what should be included or removed as basic requirements for high school graduates will be held before the school board's Dec. 22 meeting, at 8 p.m. in the school administration building, 10700 Page Ave., Fairfax.
Previous speakers on the competency requirements have noted that some of the requirements may be too difficult (i.e. interpreting data for bar, broken line and circle graphs), while others are too easy (locating a telephone number in a directory or reading a recipe).
They also have suggested that subjects like ecology, natural science and nutrition be covered by requirements.
The state's requirements for competency are broad. They require that a student demonstrate "functional literacy . . . including the ability to read, write and speak," and "computational skills, including the ability to work with decimals and percentages to . . . participate in society as consumers. The state also requires students to have basic knowledge of the history and cultures of the United States, and "job entry skills," allowing a student to pursue higher education or to get a job.
"It's expensive for the schools to develop the specifics of what the state wants," Savage said. "Although Fairfax County has the resources, it is still going to cost about $80,000 just to test students for competency and several more thousand to get materials for short courses to teach students who aren't meeting those requirements."