What’s missing from the state’s proposal for new high school course requirements

by | Aug 31, 2018 | Accountability, Ed., Featured, Meaningful High School Diploma, Regular Ed

The Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) is considering a proposal from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) to make substantial changes to the state’s minimum high school graduation requirements. They will vote on the proposal in October.

I have many thoughts about this proposal, but first, I want to walk through how we got to where we are today and what major changes the proposal would entail.

How did we get our current requirements?

KBE approved the current minimum high school graduation requirements in February 2006, and the requirements first took effect for the 2012 graduating class.

The policy was informed by recommendations from the groundbreaking Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts report. The Ready or Not recommendations resulted from an extensive study of higher education and employer entry-level expectations. Numerous leaders from Kentucky’s higher education, business, and education communities participated in the effort. The bottom line from the study was that there was a solid foundation of academic knowledge and skills in English/language arts and in mathematics that all students needed, whether they choose to attend college or pursue training toward a career after high school.

The 2006 policy aligned course requirements with state standards to ensure all students had exposure to all state standards prior to graduation. In particular, the policy required all graduates to complete three credits of mathematics through Algebra 2 (students can substitute an integrated, applied, or occupational course aligned to their career path) and to take math each year of high school. It also required four credits of English through English 4 and language arts all four years. KBE also called for the state to administer a series of end-of-course (EOC) assessments in English and mathematics to encourage greater consistency in student exposure to state standards in these courses across the state.

Several years later, in 2009, Kentucky built on these requirements, requiring that all students who score below the Council for Postsecondary Education’s ACT benchmarks in reading, English, and math take a transition course that focuses on their specific remediation needs.

What policy changes might happen?

The current proposal makes three significant changes that will affect all Kentucky public school students, beginning with the class of 2023:

  • More flexible course requirements: Graduates will be required to take four credits of English including English 1 and 2, and four credits of mathematics, including Algebra I and Geometry. Courses in English 3, English 4, and Algebra 2 will no longer be required and students will no longer be required to take mathematics all four years of high school.
  • New exit exam: Graduates will be required to receive a minimum score on a new statewide mathematics assessment and reading assessment, and take science and social studies assessments. All students would take these tests in the 10th grade.
  • Evidence of postsecondary readiness: Graduates will be required to meet criteria for either academic or career readiness through a menu of options.

What’s missing?

In regard to course requirements, this proposal essentially requires that all students take a shared “foundation” set of courses through the 10th grade level. They will then be free to meet subject-specific course requirements (e.g. 4 credits in mathematics) in 11th and 12th grades by selecting courses that meet their interests and goals.

I expect that the majority of Kentucky high school students will continue to take a college- and career-ready course of study that includes mathematics and English courses above the 10th grade level. Most will continue to take Algebra 2, English 3, and English 4. Nationwide, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress transcript study, the vast majority of high school graduates (85%) complete mathematics through Algebra 2 or beyond. According to a recent study from Achieve, 20 states plus the District of Columbia require graduates to complete math through Algebra 2. Certainly, I will make sure my child (class of 2029!) takes the most challenging courses he can throughout high school.

Students only get one shot at 11th and 12th grade. Requiring that all students take a course of study that exposes them to the full range of college- and career-ready standards is one guardrail to help our young people graduate high school with as many doors open to them as possible. As a Kentuckian, I support policies and practices that help all students graduate from high school and have the preparation to succeed in college, and in their chosen career, and in civic life.

Given that Kentucky’s education leaders are strongly considering removing this guardrail, here is what I find missing from the course requirements proposal:

  • Intentionality toward the possible courses of study that students might pursue for the final two years of high school if they do not pursue a college- and career-ready course of study. The state should model a few courses of study that prepare students for different paths after high school – with validation from postsecondary educators and employers – and help districts clearly communicate to students and parents the implications of choosing this course of study.
  • Support from the state to districts in implementing different courses of study. If there are mathematics and English courses that would be in greater demand (e.g. statistics, technical writing), the state should provide support to districts to understand the standards that the courses could encompass, convene high school and postsecondary educators to adapt aligned and high-quality course outlines and instructional materials, and provide professional learning for teachers of these courses.
  • Reporting data on graduates’ course-taking by student subgroup. If high school course-taking will simply be a product of student interests and goals, then there should not be disparities by student subgroup. For instance, if Kentucky’s education leaders do not believe that all students need Algebra 2 in high school, then students from families with lower incomes or students of color should not be more likely to fall into the “don’t need” category.

If you haven’t read it yet, check out my post about the proposed new exit exam requirement.

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