The agreement this month giving Virginia students college credit for courses they take in high school does not change many policies that already were in place, state college officials say.
The program was launched Sept. 15 at a ceremony officiated by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). Representatives of 63 two-year and four-year colleges agreed that high school students would be guaranteed a chance to receive a semester's worth of credit in biology, psychology and U.S. history.
Officials at several colleges acknowledged, however, that the agreement merely codified how they handled high school students seeking college credit. They praised Warner for bringing together leaders in higher education but urged students to examine the details, which will vary from school to school.
"To students savvy enough to ask, this is nothing new," said Norrine Bailey Spencer, associate provost and director of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech. "The wording of it is extraordinarily precise, and it's important to keep talking about it until people understand."
Warner announced the agreement about a week after unveiling a plan to make high school reform the thrust of his chairmanship of National Governors Association. Virginia's policy is an attempt to make the senior year more meaningful and help students save college tuition by shaving requirements from their degree, Warner said.
According to the agreement, students could earn 13 credit hours by receiving qualifying scores on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams or taking classes at community colleges. Participating colleges still can set their own rules for how students collect credits.
For instance, according to the agreement, students are guaranteed four credits in biology for receiving a 5 -- a perfect score -- on the Advanced Placement exam. Several schools already awarded credit for a 5. Many gave credit for the lower scores of 4 or even 3.
Likewise, the agreement spells out that students can get credit at a four-year college if they enroll in biology at a community college and get at least a C. Several four-year schools said they already awarded credit for those classes. Two that didn't, the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary, still will not.
Those details are made clear in comprehensive documents that will be posted for students soon, said Stephen Scott of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Scott said he thought the guarantee of credits is new at some colleges, though he had no examples.
Posting the information about college requirements on one Web site will ease the process for students, said Belle Wheelan, the state's education secretary. She said a new program will allow high school students to take Advanced Placement courses online, expanding access to students whose high schools don't offer the classes.
"We've never touted this as a brand new idea. What we're touting is that it's now accessible to many more students than ever before," she said.
The agreement puzzled International Baccalaureate program coordinators from several Mid-Atlantic states at a recent conference, said Dan Coast, coordinator at Mount Vernon High School. He said they had trouble figuring out what practical effect the program would have on their students. Most participating schools will continue to offer biology and psychology credits to students who score a 5 or better on an International Baccalaureate exam, as they did last year.
"I just don't see how this program is doing anything different than what the colleges have been doing," he said.
There also was confusion at Washington and Lee University, said Scott Dittman, the registrar. He said the day the story ran in local newspapers, the chairman of the history department asked why he had not been consulted about a policy change. He explained that there was no change -- Washington and Lee will consider whether to award credits for the courses on a case-by-case basis.
"There's caveats all over the place, which is why that general announcement from the governor's office might have been too general," he said.
Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Warner, said the agreement was the start of a broad conversation among dozens of institutions. "I think most folks would understand that the launch of the initiative would necessarily have to have the view from 10,000 feet. The launch is designed to get folks' attention so that they become aware, perhaps for the first time, of some of these opportunities," he said.
Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, said the agreement has sparked a regional discussion among his college, George Mason University and Fairfax County Public Schools.
"This is a very modest beginning of what could be a pretty radical departure," he said. "I think we need to be careful to keep this in perspective . . . . We still have a lot of work to do. What has shifted is the attitude and the reception."
Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.