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Push is on to prepare students for college and careers

Published: Monday, Jan. 28 2013 6:40 p.m. MST

Utah education officials want two-thirds of the state's adults holding a post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020, up from the 43 percent of adults who currently have a degree.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah education officials want two-thirds of the state's adults holding a post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020, up from the 43 percent of adults who currently have a degree.

To get there, the state is working to implement the Common Core State Standards — a set of benchmarks designed to better prepare students for college coursework. But the purpose of the goal extends beyond college and into the workforce, and it sets up a debate in the state Legislature that will impact how parents and children are educated in Utah.

Among the issues:

• How do you expand Utah's higher education degree offerings?

• What can be done to fund career and technical education?

• What investments — monetarily and otherwise — can be made in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, referred to as STEM, to prepare a workforce for Utah's burgeoning high tech industry?

• How do you increase student performance and options at the high school level?

In the past several years, enrollment at Utah's public colleges, universities and technical schools has increased, but graduation rates continue to trail the national average.

According to a recent report by the Utah Women and Education Initiative, 43.7 percent of men and 49 percent of women currently graduate from four-year bachelor's programs, and more than one in every four Utah adults have an incomplete post-secondary education.

The need for improving both college readiness and degree completion has become a key issue for educators and lawmakers. But the economic downturn prompted schools to raise tuition prices, adding another barrier to access in a time when student debt has reached record levels.

"As state revenues to higher (education) continue to decline, they've found this kind of gap by raising tuition," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City. "Do we really want to put that burden on the backs of our kids?"

Steps have been taken to improve college graduation and degree attainment, such as the recent launch of the Utah Women and Education Initiative, which examines ways to shrink the state's gender gap in higher education.

Last year, a bill to require a college readiness test — such as the ACT or SAT — for all high school students stalled and failed to pass before the 2012 legislative session adjourned. The bill was designed to replace the state's basic skills test — known as UBSCT, which was retired in 2010 — with a more rigorous examination of a students' preparation to enter college.

Since then, education officials have been using an end-of-year, criterion-referenced test to comply with the state's basic skills testing law. But Judy Park, state associate superintendent over student services, said that exam falls short of lawmakers' expectations.

"The (criterion-referenced test) is not developed for the purposes which the legislation intended, which is to measure student readiness for college," Park said.

Funding for exams

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he intends to sponsor a bill similar to the one that failed last year that would mandate and provide funding for all high school students to take a college readiness exam. 

"I am sponsoring that this year, and I am committed to get that done," Stephenson said. "We need every student to take the ACT, and we need those preparations for the ACT."

In 2012, the average ACT score by Utah students was ranked second in the country when compared with the 10 states where more than 95 percent of students took the test. Utah outperformed peer states Colorado and Wyoming, as well as nearly matching the average score of Illinois, which has had a mandatory ACT program since 2008.

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