TAMPA — High school teachers hear the question all the time: How much will this test count toward my grade?
At today's 3 p.m. meeting, members of the Hillsborough County School Board may provide an answer. Under a committee proposal, the weight of a semester exam would be eased this year from 33 to 25 percent in order to increase promotion and graduation rates.
And seniors who thought they lost all of their exam exemptions due to the swine flu outbreak may get one of them back.
The exam review started more than a year ago when a committee led by secondary education director Denny Oest formed to examine the links between tests and student promotion. Last year the district reported an 80 percent graduation rate, including students in GED programs. That's 5 points better than the state average.
The committee found that Hillsborough weighs exams more heavily than many counties. Of 27 districts surveyed by the committee, most assigned a weight of 20 to 25 percent.
Several board members said they supported the proposal to ease Hillsborough's exam weight to 25 percent.
"If you're looking at the progress of a student, and the student is making A's and B's on all tests and homework, and then for whatever reason they have a bad day on the exam and make a D, 33 percent can pull your grade down," said Jennifer Faliero.
The exam discussion got more complicated last spring following the swine flu outbreak and several school closures in the county.
At that time, superintendent MaryEllen Elia suspended an incentive program that allowed students in good standing with perfect attendance to skip up to seven of their exams each year.
Parents objected this fall when the board continued that suspension for the entire year, saying it didn't want to encourage students to attend school sick.
There also were complaints about exams being scheduled after the holidays due to a state law that governs when the school year can start.
Neither of those decisions will be altered, officials say, with exams scheduled for the week of Jan. 12.
But the committee will propose reinstating one test exemption this fall for seniors who earned at least a 3 on the science portion of last year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
To qualify, they must maintain at least a C average in the class for both nine-week grading periods, with no final grade below a C; have no debts to their school; and meet the 10th-grade FCAT graduation requirement.
Whether the district ever brings back the attendance exemptions is a tougher question.
Districts including Hillsborough are slated to lose their status as "charter districts" in 2010 and will no longer have the right to exempt students from exams solely on the basis of attendance, said district lobbyist Connie Milito.
The state also is planning to eventually require all students to take end-of-course exams, and Hillsborough is hoping to influence what those tests look like.
"We're still waiting for direction from the state on how end-of-course exams play into grades and graduation requirements," said Oest, the secondary education director. "That's why we're hoping to play a part in the pilot program."
Board members say it's not necessarily a bad thing for students to get used to taking exams.
"I think the weight needs to be significant," said Candy Olson. "I think penalizing someone because they get nervous is something we don't want to do. But there is value in (taking) an exam."
Member Doretha Edgecomb said she liked the idea of shifting more of the grade back into teachers' hands.
"You have to make sure the standards are there and it doesn't become too subjective," she said. "That's my only concern."
But she said allowing students to skip exams solely through attendance would give them a false sense of security and leave them unprepared for the demands of college and the workplace.
"Test taking is not a bad thing," Faliero said. "It does prepare you for work after college."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.