Two Central High School graduates embrace. | Courtesy of JCPS

By Brent McKim

On Oct. 2, the Kentucky Board of Education will consider new minimum graduation requirements for our public high schools.

The proposal stems from a positive motivation to raise standards and increase flexibility. As written though, part of the proposed requirements are vague and lacking in essential details and plans, while other parts set extremely restrictive requirements to which all students will not have equal access to achieving.

Unclear Strategies

Under the proposal, students would be required to pass a single standardized test in mathematics and reading in order to graduate.

Brent McKim

In other words, a single standardized exam could stand between a student who has otherwise done well in his or her classes and their diploma. The interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis has touted this as a basic skills exam, but the “basic” nature of the exam remains unclear. Students are slated to take the exam at the end of their 10th-grade year, which for a typical student would occur upon the completion of algebra 1 and geometry.

Algebra 1 and geometry definitely contain essential skills but go far beyond what most would consider basic math. Before this is approved, the Kentucky Board of Education and the Kentucky Department of Education need to provide clear information regarding the specific content that will be covered and how it will be evaluated before approving it as a graduation requirement.

The proposal also reduces the required number of specific content classes for students but still requires the same number of content hours.

It also allows for different course titles that can be adapted to a student’s Individual Learning Plan. While the spirit of flexibility appears positive, the essential details and plans are lacking.

To support this portion of the proposal, the Commissioner shared the story of a student who was forced to take English IV in addition to dual credit English, thus missing out on an essential elective. He fails to recognize that current regulations actually already allow school districts to approve course substitutions like this, making it further unclear the motivation for changing the system.

The graduation requirements also fail to include necessary details or examples of what such personalized courses might look like and/or how they will equitably and adequately prepare students for their futures.

Unfair and Unequitable Standards

The proposal also makes transition readiness a requirement for graduation. A transition readiness requirement sounds like a solid idea and is being marketed as offering a variety of options for how it can be met.

However, the actual proposal puts very narrow and very elite parameters on what a student must do to meet this requirement. For example, if a student is unable to meet benchmarks on a college readiness exam (e.g. the ACT), the student’s other “options” are to pass Advanced Placement exams or earn a “B” or higher in dual credit courses.

In other words, a solid “C” student who cannot get above 19 on their ACT Math would not meet their academic readiness requirement and would not graduate.

If they cannot meet the academic readiness requirement, a student can opt to meet the career readiness requirement. Unfortunately, the career readiness indicators are just as narrow and selective as the academic readiness requirements.

Students who don’t earn an industry certification in high school or pass a standardized test must earn a “B” or higher in six hours of Career and Technical Education (CTE) dual credit courses.

So, the solid “C” student who did not meet the academic readiness requirements may decide they should take some dual credit CTE courses. However, if they earn a “C” in one and an “A” in the other, they wouldn’t graduate because of the requirement of earning a “B” or higher.

Students also have the option of completing an apprenticeship or approved alternative work experience to satisfy the career readiness requirement.

This raises perhaps one of the most significant issues with the new proposal: not all schools, school districts, and students have access to these options. In fact, not all schools and districts even have the capacity to offer opportunities to take the Career and Technical Education or dual credit courses mentioned above.

Moreover, imagine a student interested in a career in health care, but their school only offers Career and Technical Education courses in agriculture and finance. Would this student be forced to pursue multiple hours of electives on courses that are not applicable to them? These are questions that remain unanswered and to which the Kentucky Board of Education and the Kentucky Department of Education should answer before changing and approving minimum standards for graduation.

It is incumbent upon them to ensure equal access to ALL of the above for all schools and school districts so that students have the same options to meet the requirements.

Back to the Drawing Board

Far from raising the bar, the proposed graduation requirements take the bar and start swinging it around wildly. The lack of coherence and detailed plans in the current proposal will undoubtedly visit unintended consequences on many of our children and schools.

Many well-deserving students will end up without a diploma or frustrated, jumping through hoops disguised as options. Schools will be forced to divert time and resources from actually educating students and toward finding pathways to mitigate the negative impacts on students’ futures. None of this can be good for our education or our economy.

Kentucky should absolutely have a conversation about updating our graduation requirements, but that conversation will require adequate time and intentionality to be done right. This is work that simply cannot be done well by Oct. 2. The issues referenced above require more than just tweaks to the current proposal.

Whether that means withdrawing the current proposal or voting it down, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Board of Education should send this back to the drawing board, bring more voices to the table, and develop a plan that is detailed, well thought, and equitable.

Brent McKim is the president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.