Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis talked to reporters after a public hearing on proposed graduation requirements. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

At a public hearing Thursday morning in Frankfort, superintendents, teachers and representatives of state education groups reiterated past requests to table proposed high school graduation requirements to allow for further study and input.

Kentucky Board of Education chairman Hal Heiner still has the power to delay the final vote, which is scheduled for Dec. 5, but did not take questions from reporters nor indicate where he stood on a possible postponement. Heiner, along with board member Rich Gimmel, were the only board members at the meeting Thursday.

Nearly every speaker agreed with the need for better requirements, and while the proposal is well-intended, they said, they want more time to study unintended consequences and districts’ ability to financially implement the proposal.

Eric Kennedy, the director of government relations for the Kentucky School Boards Association (KSBA), likened the proposal to when Project Runway host Tim Gunn gives designers minimal resources and tells them to “make it work.” Such a situation is typically meant to set someone up for failure, he argued, and the state can’t do that to its districts and students.

Calls to delay the vote are not “hollow stalling tactics,” Kennedy said.

Stakeholders traveled to Frankfort to speak about the proposed graduation requirements. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Following the meeting, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said the proposal’s core concepts will not change despite the two hours of public testimony.

Under the proposal, students would need to earn 22 credits, prove college or career readiness through a list of options, and pass a minimum competency exam in reading and math in order to graduate. Current seventh graders — the class of 2024 — would be the first to have to achieve all three requirements for a diploma. If passed, the class of 2023 would only need to meet the transition readiness requirement to graduate.

KSBA specifically asked to drop the transition readiness requirement and minimum competency exam from the proposal in written comments shared earlier this week, though few people made direct calls to drop parts of the proposal during the hearing.

Instead, most criticized the exam portion, calling it “high stakes” testing. A Jefferson County Public Schools teacher, speaking in a personal capacity, called the test a “regression” and said it would be “utter hell” for special needs students.

Lewis repeatedly disagreed with the “high stakes” phrasing, backtracking his own comments in October that the test itself was high stakes. Clarifying his past comments, Lewis told reporters the test itself would be “high stakes”  — but there are other options to accomplish that requirement and prove competency.

One includes a portfolio option, where students could appeal to the superintendent. Individual districts may have to create their own policies on how to handle the portfolio option, potentially leaving superintendents in a position of single-handedly deciding whether a student graduates or not.

Small misconceptions or differences in terminology or opinion led Lewis to say repeatedly that “at least half” of what he heard Thursday in opposition to the proposal is against things that are not technically proposed. The “incredible misinformation” has led the Kentucky Department of Education to focus on dispelling “myths” about the proposal, instead of constructive discussion, Lewis said.

Most, including experts at the nonpartisan Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, argued that the exam mirrors a more rigorous exit exam, which is something other states are moving away from after finding minimal benefits. Lewis has disagreed with their assessment, saying students will have ways to otherwise meet the requirement and that the committee is “intentionally misleading” the public in making such a comparison.

Again clarifying past comments, Lewis said the proposed exam would not be new, but a redesigned version of accountability tests students already take. Students would have to achieve an apprentice score, which signals mastery of some but not all content, to prove basic competency.

Many basic details of the test have been unclear, despite multiple reporter questions over the past months. A KDE spokeswoman said this has always been the recommendation, but it may have been unclear whether it would be an additional test.

Two Central High School graduates embrace. | Courtesy of JCPS

Some speakers worried the requirements will have unintended consequences. Kentucky’s top 10 graduation rate will likely drop with the requirements, something Lewis has acknowledged in the past.

Minority students likely to see the worst of it as they tend to have lower transition readiness rates than their white peers, the Prichard Committee has noted. Lewis said any guess at which groups would be most negatively impacted or at what rate are just that – guesses.

KBE initially passed the proposed requirements in October, ignoring multiple calls to delay the vote to allow for more input. At the time, Lewis argued public input had already been sought and used to develop the plan, and additional comments could be made in a mandatory monthlong comment period.

“A packed house for public comment — that is what we want,” Lewis told reporters after the hearing, thanking speakers for the high turnout even if most of their comments were negative.

Former commissioner Stephen Pruitt used surveys and in-person town halls to garner input on the requirements before resigning under fire in April. Lewis quickly axed the town halls to expedite the process after becoming interim commissioner in April, but he continued the surveys.

Multiple elements of the proposal have changed as a result of feedback since Lewis initially shared them in August. The proposal’s full implementation was pushed back a year to the 2020-21 school year to give districts more time to prepare. Students taking dual credit and CTE classes will need a C, not the original recommendation of a B, to prove readiness, and students using work experience to prove transition readiness will only need to earn 500 hours instead of the initial recommendation of 1,000 after superintendents stressed the number may be too much.

KDE did not respond to comments made during the two-hour hearing, instead saying it will respond to everything in a statement of consideration that will be released by Jan. 15. Public comments about the proposed graduation requirements can be emailed to [email protected] until Friday, Nov. 30.