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Erik Burgess, Published August 18 2012

K-12 officials: Students ready for new college admissions plan

FARGO – The chancellor of the North Dakota University System announced a new proposal last week that would make it a bit harder to get into state colleges and universities.

But Bekah Sandgren, 17, a senior at Fargo South, isn’t sweating it.

She thinks stricter standards would benefit area students, especially classmates of hers who just slide by in their high school courses.

“I think that they’ll have to try to work harder to try to get into colleges,” Sandgren said. “That’s a good thing for them because everyone should try to strive for excellence.”

Area high school officials aren’t worried the higher standards would prevent too many students from seeking higher education, but some have a few more concerns about the proposal than Sandgren.

If enacted, the new entry standards would assign high school graduates a number based on core classes taken, ACT score, class rank and grade point average.

That number would determine which college the student could get into, with North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota requiring the highest number. The new rules could be in place as soon as next year.

Schools here already have plenty of programs in place to help students prepare for the potentially stricter standards, officials said.

“It doesn’t change our message,” said Jim Keal, a school counselor at Fargo’s South High School. “We’re always encouraging our students to take challenging classes.”

High schoolers have a lot at their fingertips for preparing for college, officials said, with a slew of advanced placement courses and other college credit offerings.

“We’ve been gearing up towards this, not really knowing that they were going to do this,” said Gary Clark, interim principal at West Fargo High School, who said his school has added many college preparatory offerings in the past five years.

In Moorhead, the story is the same.

“I feel, personally, our schools in Minnesota are prepared for this,” said Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash.

Some of the details are still foggy for high school educators. Newly appointed Chancellor Hamid Shirvani first publicized his proposal last week, and Keal said he still has many questions about the details.

For example, Keal worries class rank may be weighted too heavily.

“If you graduate with a class of four students, half of you are going to be in the bottom 50 percent,” he said. “That’s a pretty big hit.”

Kovash said the new entry requirements also bring into question how grades will be standardized, especially across state lines.

“What does a grade mean? Does it mean one thing in one school and another thing in another school?” she said.

Fargo Superintendent Jeff Schatz said the changes are welcomed, but he would like to be more involved in future conversations that involve the area’s younger school kids.

“As a K-12 school, I have not received anything from anybody in higher ed as to ‘Here’s the game plan, here are the specifics,’ ” he said.

Rather than everyone working in isolation, top administrators for the state’s K-12 and higher education systems should be discussing major changes in tandem, he said.

“I would welcome that conversation so that there is, again, more of a collaborative effort as to what are the expectations here,” he said.

Clark said another hindrance in the system is that he doesn’t receive information from area colleges about how his students are doing post-graduation.

“We’ve never had that data available to us. That would be helpful data,” he said. “Let us know how our kids did so we know how we’re doing.”

Overall, though, the tightening of collegiate standards isn’t surprising for these school officials.

Clark said the Shirvani plan responds directly to grumbling he’s heard from universities regarding high school students being unprepared.

“We’ve heard the complaints from the university level that too many students have to go into remediation,” he said.

Keal said all will be well if students are given the time to ready themselves.

“I don’t have a problem with increasing admissions standards,” he said. “I think it’s important to give students time to prepare for those.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518