Kentucky’s Proposed Graduation Requirements Strike The Right Balance

If you’ve ever wondered why conversations about improving schools often resort to people talking past each other, there’s a reason: Public K-12 education means different things to different people.

On one end, there’s the “college-for-all” mentality, the philosophy of those who argue that the aim of public K-12 education should be to prepare all students for success at a college or university. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a growing population arguing that a high school diploma should also have a more tangible meaning; that the holder has the necessary skills and knowledge to join the workforce, perform a trade, or serve in the military. In my opinion, Kentucky’s newly-proposed graduation requirements strike a nice balance between both views.

The Need For New Graduation Requirements

One of the biggest concerns facing Kentucky schools may appear to be a major boon, but don’t be fooled. Kentucky’s graduation rates, holding firm at 90%, aren’t what they seem.

While 9 out of 10 Kentucky seniors walked at last year’s graduation, only about 6 of them were identified as “college and/or career ready,” meaning they’ve demonstrated the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in college or the workforce. (Of course, the phrase is questionable, given that more than half of all college freshmen find themselves in remedial courses.) This disparity really challenges the value of a Kentucky high school diploma, prompting leaders from across the state to take a look at modernizing and personalizing graduation requirements.

After much discussion, debate, and even some outrage, the Kentucky Board of Education has now approved a new set of graduation requirements that seek to raise the bar for Kentucky students. Still awaiting further review and eventual approval by the state legislature, these changes would make diplomas more meaningful by personalizing students’ coursework while still keeping the expectations high.

Part 1: New Course Requirements

If the proposed requirements do indeed pass, Kentucky high school students would still have to take a total of 22 credits to graduate. The key difference under the new requirements is how those 22 credits would be achieved.

The newly-proposed course requirements would offer Kentucky students a much more flexible path of coursework than in previous years. Instead of having a prescribed path to graduation, students would be required to take 10 “foundational” classes while exploring their own career and academic interests through 12 “personalized” classes of their choice. All students, for example, would be required to take Algebra I and Geometry to graduate, but could select the 2 remaining credits themselves. Students interested in STEM fields may here opt to take advanced math courses, while students leaning toward less math-heavy industries could instead take applied mathematics or business math courses.

The flexibility provided by these new requirements alone would go a long way in adding value to Kentucky’s high school diplomas, giving students meaningful learning experiences that align with their career and academic goals.

Part 2: New Assessment Requirements

Kentucky’s newly-proposed graduation requirements aren’t just about flexibility. They also provide greater accountability.

For the past few years, Kentucky high schoolers have been assessed via end-of-course tests (EOCs) in their Biology, U.S. History, English II, and Algebra II courses. These tests not only counted toward schools’ performance ratings, but students’ own individual grades as well, adding additional incentive to work hard and perform well.  

Under the new requirements, that would change. With course requirements moving around, the end-of-course tests stand to be replaced by ‘end-of-span’ assessments that would occur after students complete their respective spans of core content classes like reading and math. This ensures that schools are still held accountable for effective teaching and learning without hindering students’ ability to pursue classes aligned with their goals and interests. In order to graduate, students would need to show that they can pass basic math and reading tests  (as well as pass an additional civics test with a score of 60% or higher), and this seems to be the most controversial part of the proposed changes.

The idea behind these exit exams is that students who can’t do basic math or comprehend simple texts shouldn’t graduate from high school. While that may sound like a truist statement to some, keep in mind that requiring kids to pass a series of tests to graduate isn’t exactly a popular idea.

These requirements take a seemingly unconventional approach by allowing students to graduate by demonstrating “minimum competency.” In other words, students don’t have to be math or reading whizzes in order to graduate, they simply have to do well enough on the tests to prove that they can do simple math and comprehend basic reading passages.

This may appear to be setting a low bar for Kentucky, but the reality is that there’s never even been a bar before. Considering that this “minimum competency” bar will eventually rise over time, these exit exams will up the ante for Kentucky graduates.

Part 3: Transition Readiness

Finally, the last component of Kentucky’s proposed graduation requirements involves “transition readiness,” a rehash of the career and/or college readiness mentioned earlier. Under the new guidelines, students would be required to be either career or college ready, a move that would strengthen the value of a Kentucky diploma and help close the gap between those who graduate and those who are ready to actually move on to the next step. While there are some districts that have already taken steps to incorporate transition readiness as part of their own respective graduation requirements, this is the first time that Kentucky as a whole has pushed this level of accountability.

Students can prove their “readiness” for college or the workforce in a number of ways, giving every student a fair shot. Those striving for college readiness can reach their goal by passing dual credit courses or meeting the benchmark on major college acceptance tests, while those seeking a career readiness path can meet their requirements by earning a skills certification or completing an apprenticeship alongside their coursework.

All in all, the proposed changes to Kentucky’s graduation requirements raise the bar for students while simultaneously giving them flexibility. They aren’t perfect, and of course, there will always be those who disagree. However, if these changes are ultimately approved by the state legislature, they will go a long way in making high school diplomas more meaningful in Kentucky.




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