Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis and Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Hal Heiner talk to reporters. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

This post has been updated.

The Kentucky Board of Education approved new high school graduation requirements Wednesday despite several state education organizations calling for more discussion.

The requirements, one of Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis’ top priorities, passed unanimously. Lewis has repeatedly stated that students are graduating from high school without basic reading and math skills, needing to take remedial courses in college and not being set up for success.

“Rather than celebrate, we should all hang our heads in shame,” Lewis told board members, referencing Kentucky’s current 90 percent graduation rate — one of the highest in the country.

Lewis said there is “something incredibly wrong in our system” that is leading to achievement gaps across the state. “We have to do something different,” Lewis said.

Starting with fall 2020 freshmen, Kentucky’s students will have to obtain 22 credits, pass a foundational reading and math test in 10th grade and prove college or career readiness in order to graduate.

Wayne Lewis

Stakeholders can submit comments on the plan until Nov. 30. There will also be a hearing on Nov. 29 at 10 a.m. for public comment. The board is slated to review the comments and make potential changes to the plan at its December meeting before sending it off for a legislative review.

Some board members, including Joe Papalia and Kathy Gornik, argued in favor of higher standards than what Lewis proposed.

“We have four years of high school to get to the eighth-grade level?” Papalia asked Lewis and state education officials.

A high school diploma, under the new standards, would prepare someone for around a $10 an hour job, Lewis estimated.

Papalia said a higher bar — like the GED standards — is needed so graduates can get jobs paying $13 an hour or more and live independently.

“The proposal we are making for moving high school graduation requirements does not, in fact, perfectly align with the real reality of postsecondary education, with the realities, the demands in the workforce … but it is a first step,” Lewis told reporters after the meeting.

Lewis said they can’t “set the bar” for the foundational test, which checks for “basic competency,” until they design a test and pilot it, though it won’t test as high of a level as a GED test.

Based on “context” from the appeals portion of the proposal, the test is expected to focus on eighth grade standards, Perry Papka, senior policy director for the Prichard Committee, said. For math, that is around pre-algebra concepts, Papka said.

The test’s bench marks “will approximate basic competence in reading and mathematics” and will be determined with help from teachers.

A bid is out now to hire a company to create the test, which will be built using current state standards. Lewis estimated they’ll have minimum cut scores by fall 2021.

Board member Rich Gimmel questioned the transition readiness requirement, another concern of education groups. He argued it wasn’t the board’s position to say whether or not a student is an acceptable member of society but should focus on teaching reading and math.

Lewis, along with several education leaders, think the test and readiness requirements will cause Kentucky’s graduation rate to drop initially, beginning with the class of 2024.

In the week before the vote, several education groups in the state asked the board to delay the vote to allow for more discussion. Potentially delaying the vote wasn’t mentioned in Wednesday’s meeting.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee, said she was “disappointed” that the vote wasn’t delayed but will continue to share information and encourage stakeholder engagement in the comment period. 

Stakeholder groups can make a difference in the comment period “if we keep to Kentucky’s tradition of a collaborative working environment benefitting from the engagement of stakeholders,” Blom Ramsey told reporters after the meeting.

On Tuesday, Lewis said some of the groups asking for a delay “intentionally misled” the public, purposefully stretching research or genuinely not understanding what they were citing.

“If you want to disagree with our proposal, then disagree with it on the merits,” Lewis said Tuesday. “Don’t mischaracterize the research and don’t mischaracterize what we’ve put forward.”

The groups wanted more discussion time to answer some of their concerns, including details about how beneficial a foundational test is and how the requirements could hurt traditionally disadvantaged students.

Lewis said most of the answers they wanted were already outlined in the proposal or legally have to be determined by individual districts and schools.

Blom Ramsey said states are moving away from the exit exam concept and has questioned why Kentucky is instead moving toward it. Research she cited found minimal benefits for students from exit exams.

“When this was proposed … we did what we do, which is study,” Blom Ramsey said. “We brought the research to inform policymakers as we have done for over three decades.” 

Lewis said Tuesday that the proposal is requiring a minimum competency test, not a more rigorous comprehensive exit exam. Each state uses different types of exams with different standards, he added. In Kentucky’s case, high schoolers will be expected to show eighth-grade-level skills. 

If needed, students can appeal the test score, Lewis said. Such appeals, like showing proficiency in eighth-grade tests, using a portfolio or going directly to the superintendent, could help disadvantaged students specifically, Lewis said.

Will the state put its resources into providing a “relevant and rigorous learning environment,” or into testing to a minimum competency exam that research shows is “questionable at best,” Blom Ramsey asked after Wednesday’s meeting.

The transition readiness requirement, which makes students prove they’re ready for college or career upon graduation, could be also problematic for disadvantaged students, experts have said.

Districts having inequitable options to prove transition readiness is a “legitimate concern,” Lewis said Wednesday. Some schools may not have the same dual credit courses or career pathways, and it is unlikely the state will ever be at a point where all schools offer everything, Lewis said. 

While the graduation rate is expected to drop initially, it is difficult to estimate by how much. Lewis said speculations are just “pulling a number out of the air.”

Blom Ramsey argued the current transition readiness rate can be used to speculate how much the graduation rate would drop. The rate tends to be roughly 30 percentage points lower than the graduation rate, but those numbers drop drastically for African-American students and those with disabilities.

The JCPS graduation and transition readiness rates are both lower than the state average. The district graduated 82.4 percent of students in 2017-18, and around half were considered transition ready.

On Tuesday, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said that he doesn’t believe in college or career readiness, but in college and career readiness.

“I believe every student should graduate with a plan that gives them option for both college and career, and many times doing both together,” Pollio said.

After a strong evaluation and job offer on Tuesday, the board approved Lewis’ contract to become permanent commissioner Wednesday. He’ll make $200,000 a year for four years, with the contract ending in October 2022.