The Carroll County Board of Education took its first steps last night toward increasing graduation requirements and intensifying the rigor of courses offered in secondary schools.
During a four-hour work session, the five-member board joined a roomful of teachers, parents and school administrators to brainstorm issues and options for graduation requirements, the county's offering of Advanced Placement courses, the system of dividing students into different levels of instruction and granting high school credit for high school classes offered in middle school.
Although the board did not vote yesterday, its members expressed support for bumping up the number of required credits from the state minimum of 21 to at least 25 - a standard that about 95 percent of the county's students meet. Interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker and his staff will return to the board with a specific recommendation on the minimum number of credits the county should demand and whether the additional requirements should be directed into specific subject areas.
"If we're going to make a change here, I'd like to think it's not cosmetic and that we're going to change something that helps kids get where they need to go," board member Thomas G. Hiltz said. "If 95 percent are already there, what are we doing for the other 5 percent?"
"If you want assurances that the 25 [credit minimum] will increase the rigor of the program," said Barry Gelsinger, the county's director of curriculum and staff development, "we can give you those assurances."
To be awarded a high school diploma in Carroll County, students must earn a minimum of 21 credits, including four in English; three each in social studies, science and math; one each in physical education, fine arts and technology; one-half in health; and either two in a foreign language or in advanced technology or completion of a state-approved career and technology program.
Carroll's requirements mirror those set by the Maryland State Board of Education, but principals and administrators in recent months have contemplated raising those minimums to nudge students toward more challenging classes. Several counties, including Frederick, Montgomery and Talbot, have increased their requirements from state minimums.
The meeting sometimes resembled a television talk show, with Gelsinger keeping the board and audience to a tight schedule and wandering the room to call on people who wanted to speak. He started the session by setting ground rules that "every thought is a valid one" and by assuring the crowd that "we're not coming forward with a position here, we're just exploring."
For four hours, the board and audience explored whether students should be divided by ability into different sections of English, science and other classes. The five board members agreed they should, although some said they would prefer fewer levels and more effort directed at helping the lowest achievers reach grade level.
They discussed whether middle school pupils who take high school courses, such as Algebra I and Spanish I, should be given high school credit. They remained split, but seemed to be leaning toward a suggestion from Westminster High School Principal Sherri-Le W. Bream that middle-schoolers receive high school credit but not be exempted from taking the required number of core subjects in high school.
They debated whether the county should offer more Advanced Placement courses as a way of getting more students into more advanced classes. Only one board member, C. Scott Stone, did not wholeheartedly support AP program expansion, saying he could not justify spending the additional money "if we already teach [courses] at that level."
And they explored how any change in graduation requirements should be structured and funded.
"It would be nice to see some budget implications to go along with this," said board President Susan W. Krebs.
"Awwww, it doesn't cost anything," Gelsinger replied with a wave of his hand.
"I'm going to hold you to that," Krebs quipped.
Gelsinger said with a laugh, "Oh, I was just kidding."