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Officials are hoping that the Golden State Seal will be the symbol of academic achievement, but for now, it is merely . . . : The Unknown Diploma

June 30, 1997|RICHARD LEE COLVIN and DAVID R. BAKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Robin Abdelmalik first looked at his diploma from Moorpark High School earlier this month, he was surprised. He hadn't expected to see so many honors marked on it.

A cluster of seals for passing state exams with high honors. A silver stamp certifying Abdelmalik as one of the school's salutatorians, those whose grade point averages topped 4.0.

And later this summer, as Abdelmalik prepares for his first semester at UC San Diego, he may receive yet another award--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 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Zones 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 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. In the huge Los Angeles Unified School District, there are only two confirmed recipients among the 28,000 students graduated this year.

To qualify, students must score at least a three (out of a possible six) 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 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.

Many Ventura County high schools aren't participating this year, saying the state started the program too late for many students to qualify. In others, a handful of students have proven eligible.

Abdelmalik is one of four Moorpark students who have met the diploma requirements. Ventura's school district has so far identified 16 eligible students, a number that should grow as more tests are graded.

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.

Abdelmalik took six of the exams.

"I just thought it would help with college," he said, noting that he wants to study premed. He had no idea he could get another diploma as part of the deal.

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.

Colvin is a Times staff writer and Baker is a correspondent.

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