School is about to get harder -- and if things go right, easier -- for Hesperia Unified School District students, starting next year.


The HUSD school board voted Monday night to approve a Student Assessment and Accountability Plan. The program is intended to raise the HUSD's graduation rates, which were below 75 percent for the Class of 2009, by better-preparing students for high school.


"We were asked in September to put together a plan to make sure that students were prepared from grade level to grade level with the skills that they need to succeed," Larry Bird, the district's director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said Thursday. "The intent is not to retain kids [in previous grade levels]; it's to make kids be successful."


Various school sites were already practicing many of the elements of the plan, said Jovy Yankaskas, the district's Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction.


"[It's] a way to make it more systematic across the district, so we're all doing the same type of things," she said. "This whole thing is to assess your kids, see what your needs are and then, your site, they meet those needs."


Although testing is a big part of the assessment, the district will be moving away from relying on a single tool to evaluate a student's skills in a particular area. And, perhaps more importantly, the information about a student's test scores will travel with him to future grades, so that teachers at each new grade or school aren't starting from scratch, unaware that a given student might have historically had trouble with reading or math.


"The new teacher will be aware a lot sooner, instead of waiting another month and doing more assessments," said Yankaskas.


Students needing extra help in a given subject will receive it: Nine days at the end of school this year have been set aside for 3rd, 5th, 6th and 8th grade students who have been flagged as having problems in some core areas. If it works this year, the nine bonus days of tutoring (taught by salaried administrators, to keep costs down for the extra days of schooling) will be repeated in future years.


"Last year, we did not have summer school at all. We feel this is sort of a middle ground," said Yankaskas. "We don't want kids who are below the line to get further below the line."


But the students will also be expected to keep up their end of the deal with an improved focus on learning fundamentals.


Middle school students must accumulate 110 academic credits to get into high school. But now, instead of potentially loading up on electives or other non-core classes, 80 of those 110 credits have to be in classes like reading, math and science.


"Having been a middle school teacher, I can tell you that while there are students who get their 110 credits, [and] they're used to doing the minimum and don't do great in their core classes," said Bird.


Current middle school students aren't being thrown into the deep end with only a year or two to get all 110 credits: Rising eighth graders will only have to pick up the credits possible during their 8th grade year.


"All 6th graders starting middle school next year, they're going to be responsible for all those credits," said Bird.


The new plan also sets an ambitious timetable for getting all schools to 800 and then 875 Academic Performance Index average scores over the next decade. Bird acknowledges that not every school might get there: During the meeting, skeptical school board members questioned whether the district's high schools could really jump 40 API points a year on a consistent basis.


"In 2000, [former superintendent Dick] Bray set a goal of reaching 800 by 2010," said Bird. "Had we not set that, I guarantee we would not have as many schools [at or around 800] as we have.


"I'm not asking Hesperia High School to make 120 points of growth; I'm asking them to make 40," he said. "We've got to set goals. If you don't set them to stretch folks, you're not getting there. ... Our secondary schools have not reached the same levels as the elementary schools, and now it's time to address that."


The program is an ongoing one, and once fully implemented, the district will be examining which strategies are working best getting students back on academic track with their peers. And to help parents keep up with what's going on in their children's education, new, more "parent-friendly" report cards will make their bow next school year.


"This is about making sure the kids get the skills they need for the next level," said Bird. "We're going to monitor kids, by name, to make sure none of them fall through the cracks."


The next regular meeting of the HUSD school board will be held on May 3 at 6 p.m. in the HUSD Educational Support Center Annex, 15576 Main Street.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 760-956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star