Proposed graduation requirements offer flexibility, accountability

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Interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis
Interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis

Does handing a diploma to a high school graduate mean that he or she is ready to succeed in the next phase of life? Does it even indicate that he or she is confident in reading and mathematics?

Under Kentucky’s current graduation requirements, the answer is no, which is why I believe now is the time for us to make significant revisions to our requirements.

Kentucky now boasts one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country at nearly 90 percent. Our high school graduation rate ranks seventh in the nation. The improvement we have made over the past decade has been extraordinary.

But our high school graduation rate has not translated into the successes in postsecondary education or training that you would expect. According to data from the Kentucky Center for Statistics:

  • of the public high school students graduating in 2017, just 65.6 percent met the requirements to be considered ready for college and/or the workforce; and
  • only a little more than half of all 2015 graduates were enrolled in a college or university in the year following their graduation; and
  • of the graduating class of 2010, only 30.6 percent of them earned a earned a certification – such as a postsecondary certificate or any type of degree – seven years after they graduated high school.

At its August meeting, the Kentucky Board of Education discussed revisions to the state’s graduation requirements. These new requirements, if approved by the board at its next regularly scheduled meeting in October, would take effect for freshmen entering high school during the 2019-2020 school year.

The proposed graduation requirements keep the minimum of 22 credit hours that are required of students now, including:

  • English I and II AND two additional English language arts credits aligned with the student’s Individual Learning Plan (ILP)
  • Algebra I and Geometry AND two additional mathematics credits aligned with the student’s ILP
  • 3 credits social studies (at least 1 aligned with the student’s ILP)
  • 3 credits science (at least 1 aligned with the student’s ILP)
  • 1 credit visual and performing arts
  • 1/2 credit physical education
  • 1/2 credit health
  • 6 additional credits aligned with the student’s ILP

In addition, students will be required – by state law – to pass a 100-question civics exam, receive instruction in financial literacy and demonstrate competency in essential skills and technology.

While the freshmen and sophomore years will look much the same for students, the proposed graduation requirements give schools the flexibility to match up classes for juniors and seniors to each student’s career goals and interests.

You’ll notice that the new requirements use the phrase “aligned with the student’s Individual Learning Plan (ILP)” frequently. An ILP is a process schools use to advise students in grades 6-12 about the kind of coursework and activities that will best prepare them for life after graduation. These ILPs help identify a student’s strengths and areas for growth to ensure that every child graduating from a public high school in Kentucky is prepared for the kind of life he or she wants to live.

Our current graduation requirements force each student to take English I-IV, as well as Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. While those are all good courses, that strict adherence to the name of the class – regardless of whether a different class might fit a student’s career goals better and cover the same material – has made it harder for students to complete their career pathways.

Take, for instance, a colleague of mine here at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). Her son is interested in a career in the medical field. He is a senior now and had to enroll in English IV even though he also is enrolled in English 102 as a dual credit student. Taking English IV – which adds no new academic content – meant he had no time to take medical terminology, a class that would better prepare him for his chosen career. To me, that makes no sense.

With increased flexibility, the new graduation requirements also include more responsibility for both students and schools.

After completing English I and II; and Algebra I and Geometry, students at the end of their sophomore year would have to take and pass end-of-span tests before they can graduate. These exams would ensure each student has what we are calling foundational skills in reading/writing and mathematics, which are necessary to function in society.

These tests will replace our current end-of-course (EOC) tests, which were taken at the end of each class. Students were not required to pass these EOC tests or demonstrate mastery of any of the academic standards covered in these classes to gain credit for the course. The fact that so many of Kentucky’s high school graduates have to take remedial courses once they go to college is proof that we have been giving students credit for content they never mastered.

Although we are holding students to a higher standard, don’t fear that they will be blocked from receiving a diploma because of one bad testing day. If students don’t pass the exams at the end of their sophomore year, they will have two more times in both their junior and senior years to demonstrate they have mastered the content. If that child has a problem with testing and cannot pass the exam, there will be an alternative process where students can submit their work in a portfolio to demonstrate their mastery.

Students also would have to demonstrate that they are ready to transition to additional postsecondary training or a career before they are able to graduate. There are a number of ways students can do this.

In order to be considered academic ready, students could:

  • Score at or above the benchmark score set by the Council on Postsecondary Education on the college admissions exam; or
  • Complete six or more hours of KDE-approved dual credit courses with a grade of B or higher in each class; or
  • Complete two or more Advanced Placement (AP) courses and receive a score of three or higher on each AP assessment; or
  • Receive a score of five or higher on two exams for International Baccalaureate courses; or
  • Score at or above the benchmark on two or more Cambridge Advanced International examinations; or
  • Complete a combination of academic readiness indicators listed above.

To be considered career ready, students could:

  • Score at or above the benchmark on industry certifications as approved by the Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board; or
  • Score at or above the benchmark on the Career and Technical Education (CTE) end-of-program assessment for articulated credit; or
  • Complete six or more hours of KDE-approved CTE dual credit courses, with a grade of B or higher in each course; or
  • Complete a KDE-approved or Labor Cabinet-approved apprenticeship; or
  • Complete a KDE-approved alternate process to verify exceptional work experience.

Yes, these are ambitious requirements for our high school students and our graduation rate probably, in the short term, will drop. I am OK with that, because we are making sure all of Kentucky’s students are prepared for a career and their future.

If we allow any student to graduate from high school without foundational math or reading skills, without the ability to successfully seek additional education, training or go into the workforce, we have failed that child. That is not acceptable and I’m betting, as parents and educators, you don’t think it is either.

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