TAMPA — High school exams got a tad less daunting Tuesday night.
By a unanimous vote, the Hillsborough County School Board agreed to ease the weight of exams from 33 to 25 percent of the semester grade. The board also reinstated one test exemption that had been suspended due to the swine flu outbreak.
It was the fear of encouraging ill students to attend school, and possibly infecting classmates with the H1N1 virus, that prompted the district in the spring to suspend an attendance incentive program that had allowed students to skip up to seven exams per year.
Suspending that program brought an avalanche of complaints from students and complaints, and prompted the district to reconvene a committee that had been looking at its exam policy.
"This is a response to the exam exemption changes that we've had this year," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
By easing the weight of those tests, officials hope students can better manage what has suddenly become a daunting schedule of two exams per day during the week of Jan. 12.
The change is also aimed at improving the district's promotion and graduation rates. More than 24,000 student grades would have seen improvements last year if exams had been weighed at 25 rather than 33 percent, said secondary education director Denny Oest.
The committee also found that a majority of 27 other counties it surveyed use an exam weight of 20 or 25 percent, he said.
Seniors who scored at least a 3 on the science portion of last year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test will also be allowed to skip one test this fall. And those who qualify based on midterm grades and behavior can still skip their spring exams.
Board members were mostly supportive of the changes.
Doretha Edgecomb said classroom performance, which is now worth 75 percent of the grade, is "probably a better indication of what they've learned and how they can apply it."
But members said it would be a mistake to devalue semester tests too much, particularly as the district prepares for the likelihood of a new state requirement for end-of-course exams.
"You cannot exempt out of exams in college," said April Griffin. "We've got to prepare students for the real world and what they're going to face in the real world."
And the district must make a strong effort to alert students to the changes as the midterm grading period approaches, said Susan Valdes.
"The seniors are still a bit confused about what they can do and what they cannot do," she said. "Make sure the word gets out."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.