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K-12 officials cautious about higher ed plan

GRAND FORKS -- A plan to overhaul North Dakota education from the state university system's new chancellor will likely set off a lot of fierce discussion and debate, according to State Superintendent Wayne Sanstead.

"Let the screaming begin," he said, quoting one reaction he's read about in the news. "Boy, that was pretty accurate."

Chancellor Hamid Shirvani's plan is aimed at improving the North Dakota University System, but it would have a big impact on K-12 education too.

It proposes to align K-12 and higher education standards and toughen university admission policies, requiring more student preparation at the high school level.

The Herald asked some K-12 officials to weigh in on the plan Thursday, including Sanstead, Grand Forks school Superintendent Larry Nybladh, Grand Forks Red River High School counselor Marilyn Ripplinger, Devils Lake school Superintendent Scott Privratsky and North Star school Superintendent Mark Lindahl in Cando.

The officials expressed some reservations with the plan, but say they are pleased Shirvani has taken the initiative.

"I see it as another attempt to help colleges with the success rates of their students," Ripplinger said. "It's a tough deal, and we can all blame each other for kids not being prepared, but it's not just one thing. It's not just one simple solution."

Selective admissions

The new standards would set up three tiers, with UND and North Dakota State University the hardest to get in, other universities not as hard and community colleges easier. The goal is to ensure students are ready for the institutions they attend.

Students would be judged on ACT test scores, high school GPA, class rank and core courses taken.

Sanstead said he backs the chancellor's emphasis on accountability. "We want our seniors in North Dakota to be taking challenging math and science courses. We know to a great extent that's not been the case up until now."

Ripplinger sees a problem with calculating university eligibility.

"We're not uniform in how we do class rank across the state," she said. "We don't even do a class rank in Grand Forks. Is a 3.3 GPA equal to a 3.3 at Fargo? You're not comparing apples to apples, ever.... If I take a lot more classes that maybe aren't as rigorous or as intense, and they're in my area of interest that I'm really good at, my GPA might be higher than someone else. So how does that factor into all of this?"

Nybladh noted that students don't have easy access to all three tiers, raising questions on "equity of access."

Grand Forks students are closest to UND, and a high percentage goes there, he said.

"If it's a distant campus, will they go is the concern," he said. "Will they be able to afford to go, will they be willing to go, perhaps even outside of North Dakota? And that could contribute to the brain drain that we've been concerned about for so long."

One reason North Dakota institutions have open admissions is because of the state's egalitarian society, he said. "That's so much of our culture, that it's difficult for some that we're going to ration access to higher education, and going to set standards, some of which might be considered arbitrary and deny that opportunity to succeed or fail."

Privratsky said, "It's going to change some of the options that students have. Maybe they're going to the university and maybe they don't qualify. It's going to obviously change some of their choices in college, and maybe limit some students to where they can or cannot go."

New roles for colleges

Community colleges would take on a greater role preparing students for the academic rigor of universities. Remedial and developmental courses now offered by the universities to unprepared students would be taught by the colleges. Dual-credit courses provided by high schools for college credit would also be taught by the colleges.

Ripplinger suggests that there are many factors that affect college preparedness, and not all are academic factors. "The biggest thing that we try to promote is to help kids make the best decision -- what their goal is for the future, and what kind of training they need for that career. There's a lot of other influences that come into play when you're making a decision about where to go to college -- parents, friends. Several things influence their decision, and it's not always based on what's best for them."

Nybladh said, "I think the assumption that students drop out of higher education during or after their first year is because of a lack of preparedness for the vigor of higher education, and may not be the only reason students drop out."

As an adjunct teacher, a father and superintendent, he believes the concern is more social adjustment through the freedom of college, he said. "I think we have to look at things more comprehensively. What is the dynamic that causes them to dropout in or after the freshman year?"

Lindahl said students do need to be better prepared and high schools should help with a more rigorous academic environment. He said his district has been trying to funnel more kids into college prep classes.


The plan would have the university system provide college-success reports to the public, with the idea that school districts should know how their students tend to fare at the college level.

Sanstead agreed with the idea. "Our districts need to know how well our students are doing, especially when we get into the higher level of competition that some have been able to avoid to that point. We know our students take five maths and four sciences -- those who prepare themselves aren't in those remedial classes."

Privratsky sees the reports more as a reflection of the university system. "I think it's good for the public to have an understanding of what every higher ed facility is standing in regard to the completion of programs, graduate rates, etc," he said. "K-12 is held to that standard with Adequate Yearly Progress right now."

AYP is a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.