Commissioner Wayne Lewis

Commissioner Wayne Lewis

Change is scary. I understand that. Yet we have reached the point in Kentucky’s history when change to our minimum standards for high school graduation is necessary to ensure that our children are well-prepared for postsecondary education and the workforce.

The case for raising the bar is compelling.

Thanks to the incredible efforts of educators, policymakers, parents and Kentucky communities, our state’s public education system no longer ranks at the very bottom of the nation in education. Our high school graduation rate is now one of the highest in the nation. Kentuckians should be proud of that progress. Yet much remains to be done.

Even with an extraordinary graduation rate, we consistently send fewer students than the national average on to postsecondary education after high school. Of the students we do send on to postsecondary education, about a quarter of them arrive on campus without having reached readiness benchmarks and even fewer students earn a credential or degree.

In fact, of the more than 32,000 Kentucky high school graduates in the class of 2010, only 26 percent had earned a credential or degree of any type by 2017 (you can learn more about this study by the Kentucky Center for Statistics here). That’s while approximately 90 percent of the American jobs created since the Great Recession require some postsecondary education. Given the expectations of postsecondary institutions and the economy – and many Kentucky high school graduates’ unpreparedness to meet those demands – we must make changes now.

There has been much written and said about my proposed changes to graduation requirements currently open for public comment. A full description of my proposal can be found here. But I want to use this opportunity to clarify a few of the most common questions and misconceptions about it.

First, what has proven to be most controversial in the proposal is that students would be required to demonstrate basic competence in reading and mathematics during an assessment in 10th grade. I am not proposing a new test for graduation. Instead, I have proposed that the reading and mathematics assessments high school students already are required to take include a score that approximates basic competence in reading and mathematics. To receive a high school diploma, students would be required to either reach those scale scores in reading and math or demonstrate basic competence through a portfolio submitted for approval by their local district superintendent. This basic competence requirement would apply first to the class of 2024, this year’s 7th-grade class.

Second, I have proposed greater flexibility in the state’s minimum course requirements. While the minimum number of earned credits would remain at 22, students would have greater flexibility in choosing courses, most notably in English and mathematics. In English, students would be still be required to successfully complete English I and II, but would have greater flexibility with the additional two required courses, provided the courses align with Kentucky’s Academic Standards. In math, students would no longer be required to successfully complete Algebra II. They would be required to complete Algebra I and Geometry, but permitted to choose two additional math courses, provided the courses also align with state academic standards.

The proposed change in the mathematics requirement has been criticized by some math teachers in the state, but applauded by many other educators and leaders at the high school and college levels who recognize the need for students to have multiple pathways, some of which don’t include Algebra II.

Our current graduation requirements call for the successful completion of an Algebra II course for all students, which at least in theory is a much higher bar than the basic competence requirement I have proposed. In practice, however, we know that many students pass the required Algebra II course and graduate without having demonstrated mastery of basic concepts. We know this to be true because many of these graduates and Algebra II completers arrive on college and university campuses requiring substantial remediation in mathematics.

Interestingly, I have received the most emails with questions, concerns and frustrations from world language teachers and postsecondary faculty members. Most messages begin or end with a plea to reconsider elimination of a world language requirement for graduation. But there is no current world language graduation requirement to eliminate, neither at the state nor local levels. With my proposal, students would continue to take world language courses as electives as appropriate for their college and career plans.

Finally, I have proposed that as a requirement for graduation, students demonstrate transition readiness through one of many routes as defined in the state’s accountability system. Questions and concerns have arisen, and rightfully so, concerning the reality that smaller schools with smaller budgets will have fewer ways for students to achieve transition readiness. But because there are so many ways to demonstrate transition readiness – and because of state resources recently made available to students and schools such as scholarships and reimbursements for fees for exams like Advances Placement (AP) – even smaller schools will have the ability to offer multiple avenues to transition readiness.

Demonstration of transition readiness, in some form or fashion, is critical for ensuring graduates are equipped to successfully transition to postsecondary education or the workforce immediately following high school graduation. Ways to demonstrate transition readiness include, but are not limited, to:

  • earning one of more than 100 state-approved  industry recognized credentials;
  • completing a CTE end-of-program assessment for postsecondary articulated credit;
  • earning a grade of C or higher on 6 credits of general education or career and technical education dual credit courses;
  • earning qualifying scores on AP, Cambridge or International Baccalaureate exams;
  • meeting state readiness benchmarks on the ACT exam; or
  • completing a pre-apprenticeship program; or completing a documented work-based learning experience.

The transition readiness requirement would apply first to the class of 2023, this year’s 8th-grade class.

Whether a Kentucky high school diploma is earned in Jefferson County or Cloverport Independent, the diploma must signify that a student has at least basic skills in reading and mathematics and is equipped to move successfully into postsecondary education and/or the workforce. That’s minimally what the public expects of its public education system. Failure to ensure such minimum requirements would be a betrayal of the public’s trust in the system and sets students up for failure.

While issuing a high school diploma to a student without basic skills might feel like an act of kindness or mercy, that graduate soon finds that we have done him or her no favors, as he or she lacks the basic skills and competencies needed to earn gainful employment or be successful in postsecondary education. We can and we must do better. Our students and our Commonwealth deserve more. It’s time to raise the bar.