Today, after a vigorous discussion, the Kentucky Board of Education unanimously approved revisions to the regulations governing high school graduation requirements. I want to take some time here to explain these new requirements and my vote of support, since some provisions of the regulation have generated concern or even opposition. As always, any thoughts expressed here are my opinions alone and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else at Western Kentucky University (where I am professor of educational administration, leadership, and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education.
The new graduation requirements include three components, which I will address in turn: a) new expectations for how students earn subject-specific credits toward their diploma, b) transition readiness as a requirement for graduation, and c) successfully passing a functional competency exam in reading and math as a requirement for graduation. It's been many years since Kentucky has revisited its high school graduation requirements, and these changes have come about after a year-long process of generating intense stakeholder feedback and input, started under the leadership of Kentucky's previous Commissioner of Education.
Besides a need to modernize course requirements, there is also a mounting concern that while Kentucky has experienced an encouraging climb in graduation rates (all the way to 90%), only about 65% are "transition ready," meaning they've demonstrated a capacity for success in college or the workplace. Only about 60% of Kentucky's high school graduates go on to post-secondary education (lower than the national average of 70%), and a great many of them need remediation before they can pursue credit-bearing coursework in college. In short, there is a gap between the number of students earning diplomas and what students know and are able to do, and that calls into question the real-world value of the diploma and the need to make it more meaningful.
New course requirements and assessments
Kentucky will still require students to earn 22 high school credits for graduation, as before, but under the new requirements students will take a "foundational" sequence of courses in math (Algebra I and Geometry) and English (English 1 and 2). Then students will be able to personalize their additional 2 required credits in each subject, possibly taking a wide range of courses that align to the state learning standards for reading and math. So, for example, a student interested in pursuing a STEM field might take a technical writing course for an additional English credit, as opposed to the standard combination of literature and writing found in English 3 or 4. Students will also be able to select from a variety of courses to meet their 3 credit requirements in science and social studies (required credits for visual/performing arts and health/PE also remain).
In addition to giving students more flexibility in their coursework, students will no longer be tested in specific end-of-course standardized exams (currently for Biology, English 2, US History, and Algebra 2). Instead, they will take assessments at the end of each "span" of courses (after the foundational courses in English and Math, and after their 3-course span for social studies and science).
These changes maintain high expectations that students will engage coursework aligned to rigorous standards, but provide a much greater level of personalization in their learning, a shift that is appropriate for our rapidly accelerating "on demand" landscape in education and other fields. This personalization will also increase students' capacity to arrange learning experiences more in line with their long-term post-secondary goals and interests.
Transition ready requirement
For several years Kentucky has held schools accountable for the percentages of students that achieve certain benchmarks associated with college and/or career readiness (now called "transition readiness"). Under the new regulations, students will be required to successfully complete at least one of these academic or career pathways in order to graduate, which include a wide variety of options including taking dual credit courses, scoring at benchmark on the ACT or other college admissions test, completing an industry certification, among others. This is a new level of individual accountability that Kentucky's system has never featured.
I have some concerns that we don't have a very clear common understanding of what really defines "transition readiness," but we do have a multitude of examples making up the possible pathways to get there, and I'm satisfied those options include something achievable by every student. I'm also greatly encouraged by the number of individual districts that have voluntarily embraced transition readiness as a graduation requirement. Their example encourages me that this is a realistic goal for every student.
Minimum competency requirement
Perhaps the most controversial element of the new regulation is requiring students to demonstrate a minimum competency level for reading and math before they can be awarded a diploma. Currently, it's possible for students to graduate high school and still be functionally illiterate and unable to perform basic math. The percentages of students in such bad shape are likely small, but whenever this happens it is a tragic failure of the system on a multitude of levels. Under the proposal, a cut score representing minimum competency will be established on the reading and math test students will take in 10th grade. This will not be the same cut score associated with "proficient," a higher level associated with mastery of a very wide range of learning goals. Several other states have implemented more rigorous, comprehensive kinds of exit exams, and research suggests that holding individual students accountable at that level has a disproportionately negative effect on students of color and students of poverty. Research indicates that a lower competency bar helps mitigate against that risk, as well as having alternate pathways to demonstrate proficiency and the opportunity to take the test multiple times. Kentucky's new regulation includes such provision for students to demonstrate reading and math competency through a portfolio of artifacts, and also through a proficient cut score on their 8th grade math assessments, and permits them to make numerous attempts at earning a passing score.
The Board had a lot of discussion about whether "minimum competency" was sufficiently rigorous, but I think the research presented by Commissioner Lewis in this regard suggests the potential risks of setting the bar too high means the regulation, as approved, gets it right. We establish a bar (which we have never had), but also guard against disparate impacts on students who may face challenges beyond their control (poverty, family structure, institutional racial inequities, etc.).
Find the right balance
All in all, I think this proposal finds the right balance of accountability and flexibility. There is no reason to assume these changes will, by themselves, cause rapid improvements in student achievement. But they will add considerable value to the Kentucky high school diploma, give students a personal level of accountability, and better prepare them for the next stage of life. That's worth doing.
Lastly, as I noted in my comments to the Board, we are asking schools and students to reach higher than we've asked of them in the past. And since schools are not equally resourced across the state, some schools will struggle more than others to provide the necessary supports and remediation to help all students be successful. For this reason, I hope KBE will make it a priority for communicating to legislators the need for targeted funding increases, specifically for the purpose of school improvement and student interventions and supports. While we don't have direct control over resource allocation, we do have a responsibility to make sure every school has the capacity to achieve the goals we've established.
Update: I should have mentioned that, like with all regulatory actions, now that these revisions have been approved they will be subject to a 30-day public comment period. The Kentucky Department of Education will accept public comments on the regulation through November 30. Written comments on the proposed amendment to 704 KAR 3:305 may be sent to Deanna Durrett, General Counsel, Kentucky Department of Education, 300 Sower Boulevard, 5th Floor, Frankfort, KY 40601, or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. KDE will generate a statement of consideration based on the feedback and bring any additional revisions back to the Board for review in December, and then the regulation will go on to the state legislature for final approval. The new graduation requirements will go into effect for the incoming freshman class entering high school in the fall of 2020.