D.C. public school officials have unveiled a unique program that will require all high school students to demonstrate they can read a lease, write a household budget, fill out job applications and perform other practical tasks before they may be graduated.
The new program, called the Life Skills Seminar, will require all 6,700 of the city's 11th grade students to pass an exam testing their knowledge of everyday survival skills beginning next year, officials said. Those who fail will be required to attend special 50-minute classes daily until they master the skills.
The Life Skills Seminar is the school system's answer to those who have claimed that city schools frequently graduate students who have little ability to deal with everyday situations. School officials also see the program as one way to ensure that students can read, write and compute.
In addition, they say, the seminar will help students apply the knowledge they gain in traditional classes, such as language arts and basic mathematics, to real-life situations, such as balancing a checkbook, writing business and social letters and speaking before an audience.
"I believe it is tremendously important for educators to recognize how well students can transfer book learning to . . . practical day-to-day living," said new Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, who worked on graduation standards for Maryland students in the late 1970s when she was an assistant superintendent in the state's Department of Education.
The Life Skills concept was originally conceived during the administration of former superintendent Vincent E. Reed as part of his back-to-basics drive, but it has been enthusiastically supported by McKenzie.
A growing number of school districts across the nation are requiring their students to pass some sort of minimum competency tests, or "exit exams," before graduation. School districts in 17 states are now requiring such tests, according to the Educational Commission of the States.
Philadelphia schools, for example, have required their high school students to pass both reading and math proficiency tests since 1977 and Baltimore schools started a similar testing program in 1979. District school officials, however, believe their program is the first to require students to acquire such practical skills in a course for credit.
School officials in both those cities said that the numbers of students who failed to get their high school diplomas increased the first year the tests were given but have since decreased. Public support for the required tests has remained high in both Philadelphia and Baltimore, they said.
District school officials have been working with parents and members of the business community over the last year to identify those 20 "competencies" which they think graduating seniors should possess.
Among those areas selected are such practical everyday skills as speaking clearly and correctly, reading maps, graphs and charts, using reference materials and reading the newspaper with comprehension.
Students will also be expected to demonstrate that they know good grooming habits, health and safety standards, their rights and responsibilities as a citizen and ways in which they can constructively use leisure time.
Other areas are broader in scope and require students to know about world events and current social questions. Two issues that students will be required to write about on the test are "ways in which different ethnic groups have influenced American life" and "the impact of recent scientific and technological developments upon an individual's life."
The life skills test also requires students to write grammatically correct paragraphs, read text selections and answer questions about them, give oral presentations and perform hands-on tasks such as filling out a credit card application.
One test question requires that students read a newspaper advertisement containing several common abbreviations (such as apt for apartment) and then explain what the ad is about. Other test questions ask them to look at a payroll time card and determine how many hours the employe has worked and to determine the employe's net pay after deductions.
The tests used by both Philadelphia and Baltimore contain similar questions. But the District program is unique in that a single, specially tailored course required for graduation will teach the skills to be tested, said Associate Superintendent James T. Guines, whose staff developed the seminar.
Several states shied away from minimum competency tests after Florida was sued a few years ago for requiring students to pass an exit exam. Recently, however, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a state does have the right to require that students meet certain standards for high school graduation. But the court said that such tests must cover materials actually taught in the schools.
Guines said the District's skills seminar is on sound legal grounds since it covers materials that students should have learned before the 11th grade. Whatever the students missed will be covered during the seminar, he said.
The seminar concept already has won the blessing of the D.C. school board, which approved the idea in 1980 when it voted to increase the number of courses students must take to be graduated from high school. School officials have spent the intervening year deciding what areas the seminar should cover. The final selections were completed last week.