The Kentucky Board of Education meets in late August. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Kentucky education leaders and experts expect Kentucky’s proposed high school graduation requirements, due for a Kentucky Board of Education vote next week, to result in a drop in graduation rates. 

Those in favor of the changes, however, argue that the likely dip would only be temporary as districts make alterations to meet the new requirements, while others fear they will cause an unnecessary reliance on standardized testing and a significant decline in graduation rates, particularly among disadvantaged students.

If the requirements are approved, students will need to pass a “foundational” reading and math test in 10th grade and prove college or career readiness to graduate.

Students would take a series of foundational courses during their first two years of high school, similar to a general education program in college. After that, they would have more flexibility to select classes or career pathways that align with their interests and post-graduate plans, while still needing to meet a set number of credits in certain subject areas.

Interim education commissioner Wayne Lewis said there “may be a dip” in the rate initially, but he thinks districts will rise to meet new requirements in the following years.

Wayne Lewis

Set to begin with freshmen in fall 2019, the proposed requirements in Kentucky will have no impact on current high school students. Kentucky’s current graduation rate, around 90 percent in 2016-17,  is one of the highest in the country. Jefferson County Public Schools’ graduation rate was around 81 percent that year.

However, “our bar is pretty low,” Lewis said, adding many would be “shocked and appalled” at who receives a Kentucky diploma under the current standards. 

Some students graduate without being able to read or do basic math, he said, and the proposed requirements would raise the bar to where most people already assume it is.

JCPS teacher Ryan Davis, chair of the Kentucky Committee for Mathematics Advancement, argued that under the proposed changes, even schools with career magnet programs may not be able to hit the proposed career readiness targets. While he did not name the specific school, Davis estimated that less than 50 percent of the students at a JCPS magnet school he formerly worked at would meet the benchmarks — meaning less than 50 percent would graduate.

“Of course, that is in no way a reflection of the true ‘readiness’ of the students,” Davis wrote in an email to Jefferson County Teachers Association directors. “I don’t know how to see this other than as damaging students’ lives. It is not ‘raising the bar.’ ”

Davis went on to say he could only see the requirement heading two ways: Students either won’t get a diploma and will be “further disadvantaged in society,” or schools would waste “an inordinate amount of time and resources looking for loopholes and gaming the system to prevent students from being harmed.”

Jennifer Zinth, an education policy expert with the national public policy think tank Education Commission of the States, told Insider that Kentucky’s proposed requirements are similar to what some states are trying.

States, including neighboring Indiana, are revising requirements to make it clear high school isn’t an endpoint but a transition point, Zinth said, adding that transition readiness requirements, like the ones Kentucky is proposing, are designed to give students a leg up upon graduation.

Gary Houchens

In a blog postKBE member Gary Houchens, an associate professor at Western Kentucky University, wrote that the new graduation requirements “blends a new level of accountability with greater flexibility for schools and students. These changes are driven by the fact that, while Kentucky’s graduation rate has continued to rise, there is little evidence that student learning has actually improved.”

Houchens stated in an email to Insider that it may take some students an extra year to graduate under the proposed changes.

“And it’s possible that some students may, if they lack the motivation to accept the supports provided by their schools, fail to graduate altogether. I hope and expect the number of those students will be very small,” he said.

Calculating a drop in graduation rates

Neither Houchens nor Lewis was sure how much the graduation rate could drop, noting that any guess at this point would be pure speculation. 

However, Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of nonpartisan education nonprofit Prichard Committee, argued that one could look at current college and career readiness rates to see who would meet that potential requirement currently.

In that lens, graduation rates could drop from around 90 percent to around 66 percent statewide. Around 57 percent of JCPS graduates are college or career ready, according to the district’s report card in 2016-17.

Two Central High School graduates embrace. | Courtesy of JCPS

The decline worsens significantly when you look at student subgroups, especially traditionally marginalized students. Statewide, only 32 percent of African American students graduated college and career ready in 2017.

The graduation requirements could also impact dropouts, Blom Ramsey said. Since disadvantaged students already see lower graduation and transition readiness rates, they’re also more likely to drop out, and that could worsen life outcomes for already marginalized groups, as a high school diploma leads to higher earning potential.

However, Blom Ramsey noted that is a worst-case scenario. Under the proposed requirements, students have more ways to prove readiness, so the rates could be higher, but districts will need to raise transition readiness levels to maintain the current graduation rate.

Houchens said in an email, “Schools would have to get a lot more of them to those benchmarks to avoid a precipitous drop.”

If the proposed requirements pass, students will have to show proof they are prepared for either college or a career. The proposal outlines multiple ways students can do that: Students heading to college can meet benchmarks on a college admissions test or pass Advanced Placement or dual credit classes with a “B” average, among other options. Those heading straight to the workforce can complete an apprenticeship, take career and technical education (CTE) dual credit classes or pass an industry exam.

Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim raised concerns about “a number of unintended consequences” of transition readiness requirements, adding “it is also difficult to judge the appropriateness of the requirements without knowing details regarding how they will be assessed.”

Brent McKim

While both avenues have several options, some argue those options can be limited by the district in which a student lives. Some districts have limited options for CTE pathways or dual credit classes, if they’re able to offer them at all, McKim argued.

statement from the Kentucky Committee for Mathematics Advancement sent to KBE members echoed that.

“Rural, urban and other underserved schools often do not have access to the same resources as other schools in the state, especially when it comes to opportunities for students to meet the transition readiness requirements,” the statement reads. “Any new system must have specific plans to prevent demographics and geography from determining a student’s future.”

Potential limitations could lead to increased focus on the admissions test or may push a student to take a career pathway that doesn’t particularly interest them, critics argued.

Some expressed fears that schools could find ways to meet those requirements — test waivers, using the lowest benchmarks — to get students to graduate without being truly prepared.

“Many well-deserving students will end up without a diploma or frustrated, jumping through hoops disguised as options,” McKim wrote in an Op-Ed for Insider. “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.”

Exit exam proposed as other states drop the concept

Critics of changes to the proposed graduation requirements also take issue with a lack of clarity about surrounding a planned standardized test that would evaluate 10th-grade students’ foundational skills in reading and math. The test and its corresponding benchmarks haven’t been created yet.

It is one thing to not have the test; it’s another to not know the standards to create the test with, Blom Ramsey said.

High stakes requirements like the proficiency test and transition requirements could further negatively impact students of color, students with disabilities and students on free and reduced lunch, who generally score lower on standardized testing, she added.

How will the state ensure schools have the resources to increase instruction quality to help students meet that level and pass the test, and ultimately graduate, Blom Ramsey asked. Without support for a better learning environment, she said she isn’t sure how those students will be able to hit those goals.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey

Additionally, more states are dropping exit exams than adding them, Blom Ramsey said.

Eleven states have dropped similar exit exams due to “minimal value add” since 2011, and only 15 states required them for the class of 2017, according to a New America report. A 2010 University of Texas report found the tests “produced few of the expected benefits” and negatively impacted the most disadvantaged students.

“A test makes sure our kids have the skills they need no more than a thermometer makes a patient well,” DearJCPS co-founder and education activist Gay Adelmann said, adding that many students already face test anxiety, and a high-stakes test could make it worse.

Students who fail the test would be able to retake it and have remediation options, Houchens wrote in his blog post.

Some states replaced exit exams with end-of-course exams for certain classes. A student doesn’t necessarily need to pass the exam, but the score is built into the class grade, so a student is unlikely to pass the class without passing the exam, said Zinth of the Education Commission of the States.

More time needed, critics say

KBE received, and Insider reported, the proposal the first week of August — days after news of a settlement between JCPS and the state broke. Though, months of concern over a potential state takeover overshadowed talk of the graduation requirements.

Blom Ramsey said she has heard from parents and teachers about the decision to no longer require algebra II, which she said should stay a requirement, but otherwise, there has been minimal discussion from those outside the state board since the time of the initial reading.

Around 70 percent of states require algebra II, and students would not be prepared to “compete with their peers” without it, according to a statement from Kentucky Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

KBE is expected to vote on the proposed requirements the first week of October, but McKim and Blom Ramsey both that is not enough time to fully discuss and make changes to the plan.

KMCA chair Davis said that what some see as an accelerated timeline to get the requirements to a vote makes them think it will happen no matter what. “It’s really disempowering when people believe that changes are just going to be pushed through,” he said.

People can get behind things, but they need enough time for buy-in, Blom Ramsey said. There should be more time for discussion, to hear from experts and for parents to understand before a vote, she said.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions, Blom Ramsey said. Potentially delaying the vote until December and using KBE’s October meeting for discussion could clear things up, she added.