The State Board of Education Wednesday unanimously adopted guidelines for high school graduation requirements, but that doesn’t mean current high school students will have to change their class schedules in order to get their diplomas.

Colorado Department of Education
Colorado Department of Education

The guidelines have a long implementation timeline, and the document is expected to be changed more than once over the next two years. That makes its impact on future students hard to predict.

The overall goal of the guidelines is to make high school diplomas represent what students actually know and can do – “competency” in education jargon. Most district graduation requirements now are based on completion of a certain number of classes over a certain number of years. (Education jargon for that is “seat time.”)

The document is “an intentional statement that we are moving from seat time … to proof of competency,” said Scott Stump, a community college system administrator who was a member of the 19-person committee that developed the guidelines for SBE.

The report from the Graduation Guidelines Council sets out another key goal: “A high school diploma should guarantee that students are: 1) prepared to enter credit-bearing courses in postsecondary education institutions; 2) prepared academically to enter military officer training; and 3) prepared to be productive entry-level employees in the
workforce.”

But the details of the document have drawn a lot of questions and some opposition from a variety of education interest groups. Even Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the Hickenlooper administration’s point man on education issues, told the board he was “neutral” on the guidelines.

Graduation guidelines are a complicated issue for a lot of reasons.

First, the state constitution’s local control provision gives school boards substantial autonomy in curriculum and instruction. So, neither the legislature nor the Department of Education can impose uniform graduation requirements for all students, as is the case in some other states. Rather, the guidelines would set a basic standards that districts would have to “meet or exceed” in setting their own graduation requirements.

Second, the guidelines would have a long rollout period, and the first group of students directly affected by new district requirements will those who graduate from high school in 2021.

Third, and perhaps most important, minimum scores and standards for several of the tests and other measurements suggested in the guidelines haven’t been set. So, students, parents and districts don’t yet know the full menu of choices that can be used to set district requirements. (See below for the full list of suggested measures and cut scores.)

The guidelines also would require districts to include successful student completion of individual career and academic plans (ICAPs) in their graduation requirements and to advise students and families about graduation requirements starting in the 6th grade.

Nearly a dozen witnesses testified during the board’s two-hour hearing on the guidelines.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, was critical, saying, “The council’s proposal leaves little room for local discretion … the guidelines are more like rules.”

Because of that, she suggested to board go through the formal rule-making process, which has specific requirements for public comment. (The board didn’t take up that suggestion – it had a deadline to adopt the guidelines this month.)

Bret Miles, superintendent of the eastern plains district of Holyoke and also representing the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, sounded a similar note. “We feel like this … oversteps the local boards of education.”

Randy DeHoff, a former SBE member who was representing the Colorado Cyberschool Association, seconded the concerns of the rural caucus.

On the other side, representatives of Stand for Children, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds, A+ Denver and Democrats for Education Reform supported the guidelines. “They’re a huge step in the right direction,” said Van Schoales, speaking for A+ Denver and DFER.

Garcia, who spoke to the board earlier in the day before the hearing, said of the rules, “We’re not just quite there yet” adding it “would be best” if the board waiting to act until after his Department of Higher Education completes work on new admissions and remediation policies later this year.

Some board members were sympathetic to the critics. Deb Scheffel, a Republican who represents the 6th District, wondered, “Why wouldn’t the state board engage in rule making if it’s going to be this detailed?”

Chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from the 5th District, suggested that the grid of tests and cut scores be relegated to an appendix of the guidelines.

But both voted for the guidelines in the end, partly because of the fact that the document will be tweaked in the future.

“This is the beginning of a process,” noted education Commissioner Robert Hammond.

“These guidelines are not static,” said Stump. “At each step of the process there are going to be new tools for measuring student performance.”

It’s a moving target – new science and social studies coming spring of 2014, PARCC tests spring of 2015 and updated higher ed “no remediation” standards fall of 2013.

Creation of the guidelines was required by a 2007. The guidelines council issued an initial report in 2008 but then was dormant until it was revived last year. The guidelines law was overshadowed by a far more comprehensive 2008 education reform law, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. That set requirements for new state content standards, tests and alignment of K-12 outcome with college admissions standards.

Chart