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State officials are hoping that the California Golden Seal will be the symbol of academic achievement, but for now, it is merely . . .

The Unknown Diploma

June 25, 1997|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Most high school graduates-to-be don't have a resume. Aric J. Zamel not only does--his runs three pages, single-spaced.

The 17-year-old lists eight science fair medals, the 4.84 grade point average he racked up in a schedule jammed with Advanced Placement courses at Grant High School in Van Nuys, his status as valedictorian, of course . . . even his weekend lap swimming.

And next month, after he walks across the stage to graduate, Zamel will have another notation for that resume--receipt of a California Golden State Seal Merit Diploma.

Never heard of it? That's no surprise. This is the first year that the state is awarding the diploma, which was approved by the Legislature last summer. Many students don't even know it exists.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 1, 1997 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Special diploma--A story published June 25 misstated the criteria for winning a Golden State Seal Merit Diploma. To qualify for the new state award, high school students must pass six examinations with a score of 4 or more out of a possible 6.

State officials hope that the diploma will one day be the sine qua non of academic achievement in California--similar to New York's Regent's Diploma--and will serve as an ambitious goal that shapes teaching and inspires students. It also may eventually be a passport good for admission--or a free ride--to state colleges. For the moment, though, it is basically just another honor for the state's brightest students.

The problem is, many school districts are scrambling to find the seniors eligible to receive the first batch. Some who are eligible may never find out. Zamel, who will enter UCLA as a premed student in the fall, is one of only two confirmed recipients among the 28,000 students expected to graduate from the Los Angeles Unified School District. As many as 25 others may join him next month, once exams they took late in the school year are graded. But the statewide total probably will number only in the hundreds.

To qualify, students must score at least a 3 (out of a possible 6) on six Golden State exams. The state began administering them in 1987 in algebra and geometry, awarding high scorers a "seal" that was pasted on their diploma. Last year, the state gave more than 500,000 exams in 11 subjects.

The exams must be taken the same semester a student is enrolled in the courses they cover. But that puts this year's seniors in a bind. For they are likely to have taken at least one of the voluntary exams, in algebra, back in eighth grade--long before anyone knew that doing well might pay off in a special certificate. To be sure of receiving the diploma, the seniors themselves or the districts need to have kept track of those long-forgotten tests. The Department of Education has sent schools computer files that include much of the information, but some data was inaccurate and districts had to search student records by hand.

"It's a massive task for a district of our size to go back and try and pull out the kids who may have passed an algebra test . . . five years ago," said Janice Garbosky, a testing official in the San Diego Unified School District. "We might very well miss students."

So far, only four have met the diploma's requirements.

School districts have pushed the honors exams to varying degrees. In Riverside Unified, which emphasizes the tests, 61% of eligible students took part last year. Prior to this year's exams, two students had qualified for the diploma, which is adorned with a light-blue outline of the state, a 1 1/2-inch version of the state's seal printed in gold ink and an orange poppy.

Beverly Hills High had six students--perhaps the most of any Los Angeles County school--who met the requirements even before this year's results were known. Last year, the school gave 1,150 exams. "At our school, it's really not that big of a deal, but at other schools a lot of kids don't pass it, which is kind of weird," said senior Hanna Yoon, who will receive one of the diplomas before going on to UC Berkeley.

The 3,300-student La Canada Unified School District has begun requiring pupils to take the exams. The district, which sends 98% of its students to college, has up to 55 students who might wind up with the diploma.

The Pasadena Unified School District next door is seven times as large. But it has offered the exams solely to students who asked for them. As a result, up to 10 of its graduates may qualify.

San Francisco has given more exams than any other district and has 85 students with a shot at diplomas.

Zamel has taken eight of the three-hour exams. He said each gave him "the satisfaction of knowing that I had mastered a subject during the year." Now that he will be receiving the special diploma, he said, "it makes me feel that everything pays off . . . hard work is really important."

That, of course, is the message the state wants to send with the exams and the diploma. Although not as demanding as Advanced Placement exams, which can translate into course credits in college, the Golden State exams are still challenging for most students.

Only 3% of the students who took the biology exam last year got the top score and only 1% got the top mark on the rigorous "coordinated" science exam, which tests knowledge of several disciplines.

The diploma "will help set the top . . . then we will push everyone else to move on to these higher standards," said Ruth McKenna, the state's chief deputy superintendent of public instruction.

The diploma is part of the national "standards" drive, which aims to create objective and ambitious measures to serve as targets for teachers and students.

Regular grades are an imperfect measure, educators say, because what constitutes an "A" varies from classroom to classroom.

Last year, when Culver City High School administered 195 exams in biology, only two students earned the top mark--prompting the school to bolster its science offerings to make students more competitive.

"We're trying to work on some accountability," said Assistant Principal Jo Anne Lowe, "so that we really know if the kids are getting what they need to have to succeed in college."

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