The Maryland State Board of Education recently approved a new degree program for adult high school dropouts, who, despite existing programs, have not been able to get a diploma.

"The new External Diploma Program focuses on adults who have dropped out of school, but have acquired technical skills in their jobs," said David Hornbeck, State Superintendent of Schools.

The pilot program, which will be operated in northern Anne Arundel County, is expected to begin this fall and continue for one year. Residents from surrounding areas may also make use of the program.

The program will be operated on a $120,000 grant from the Adult Education-Special Projects division of the federal Office of Education. It is too early to say how many applicants will benefit from the pilot program, said Hornbeck.

The program is unique in that it does not tutor applicants, nor does it place them in a classroom situation, Hornbeck said.

Instead, degree applicants will be tested by an academic professional to determine their levels of competency in basic reading, writing and math skills.

In Anne Arundel County "there will be a counseling center set up where an applicant will demonstrate his ability in a non-traditional way," according to Thelma Cornish, State Director of Adult Education. She added that applicants will be asked to do such things as write letters and conduct interviews to demonstrate that they can write, read and compute numbers.

There are two parts to the degree program. Besides having to demonstrate competence in basic skills, each applicant will be tested on his or her mastery of professional skills, Cornish said.

"We will be working in areas such as carpentry, health, plumbing and any other areas that Maryland residents interested in the program have expressed an interest in," Cornish said. She added that the program will used professionals and educators in those areas to assess the applicants and counsel those who fail to meet the 100 percent score required to get a diploma.

She added that applicants without degrees, who have acquired state licenses in fields such as cosmetology, or carpentry, will only need to pass the academic portion of the program in order to earn their diplomas.

Those applicants who do not pass the academic and specialized skills test with a 100 percent score will be urged to seek remedial instruction and try the test again, said Cornish.

He added that there will be no age limit for applicants to the program, although people who are recent dropouts or have not gained technical skills will be advised to return to school or adult education programs.

"We expect the bulk of the people to be in their 30's," Hornbeck said.

"We have already received a stack of letters and phone calls from people who are ready to sign up. I don't have any doubt about the success of the program in the state of Maryland," he said.

The program is patterned after a similar program in New York City. Although Maryland is just being exposed to the idea, Hornbeck says he expects Marylanders to "recognize the value of this diploma granting program because of the degree of initiative applicants will have to assert to qualify for a diploma."