A new Tacoma Public Schools policy will allow students who want to forge ahead in their studies to “opt up” into higher-level classes. They also could gain high school credits by passing an end-of-course exam in a subject without taking the class.
“Opting up” allows a student to advance to the next highest course in a subject sequence without taking the lower-level course. For example, a student could bypass introductory Spanish and enroll directly into Spanish II. The student would not gain credits for the skipped introductory class.
The exam option would allow students to take an end-of-course test — either a state exam or one developed by Tacoma teachers. If the student passes, he or she would earn a grade of “passing” for the course, which would appear on his or her transcript, and the student would earn credits for the class. The effect on the student’s grade point average would be neutral, neither helping nor hurting.
The Tacoma School Board adopted the policy, called Individualized Academic Course Selection, last week. It’s similar to a system used by many colleges.
“This new policy is further recognition that students learn at different rates and allows students a formalized process for progressing through sequential course work,” said Deputy Superintendent Joshua Garcia.
“We are freeing students from the trap of sequencing,” said board member Catherine Ushka.
Board member Karen Vialle said the new policy provides students flexibility in the way they can earn credits — especially important for future students who will need to earn a total of 24 credits under new state requirements. Tacoma now requires 23 credits.
The decision to “opt up” or take an exam for course credit must be made in writing by the fifth day of a semester. Garcia said students might be able to take advantage of the new policy as early as the current school year’s second semester, which begins in late January.
There are some exceptions noted within the new policy. For example, it says “state-required courses may not be skipped.” Garcia said the school district is examining courses and requirements.
The policy also notes that “opting up” is available for single courses only. Students who want to bypass more than one class must take the exams and earn credits. Students must also earn enough credits to meet state and district requirements in order to graduate.
The new policy is another move by Tacoma Public Schools to promote achievement at a nontraditional pace.
Last year, the school board adopted an academic acceleration policy. It looks at state test results and College Board exams such as the PSAT. Students who do well on those tests are automatically enrolled in either Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes — both of which offer a higher level of rigor than standard classes.
Parents who don’t want their students in the advanced programs can fill out a form to keep them out. And students who don’t score well on the qualifying tests can still enroll in the higher-level courses if they want the extra challenge.
“Ultimately it is the family’s choice if they want to continue to challenge their student at this level,” Garcia said.
He said the district hasn’t yet tallied up the full effects of the new acceleration policy. But he said some schools had to add advanced classes this year to accommodate increased enrollment in certain subjects.
Critics — including some faculty members at Tacoma high schools — say that opening the doors wider to AP and IB classes will cause teachers to have to “dumb down” these challenging classes, which traditionally have attracted top-performing students.
But Garcia responds that the AP and IB programs can’t be watered down because their curricula are certified by national or international governing bodies.
“It is a requirement that we teach to these standards,” he said.