graduation requirements

Colorado districts giving students more ways to prove they deserve a high school diploma

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, Denver Post
Arvada West High School seniors prepare for graduation in 2013 ( (Seth McConnell, Denver Post ).

School districts across Colorado are revising their high school graduation requirements to comply with new state guidelines that mandate students prove their knowledge in English and math through tests, projects or college-level courses.

But students in several districts will still have to complete a certain number of high school classes to get their diplomas. While the districts have adopted the new state guidelines, they haven’t abandoned their previous credit-hour requirements.

The guidelines are meant to provide a common set of expectations for earning a diploma in a state that until recently allowed each district to set its own criteria. They were prompted by education reform laws that aim to better prepare students for college and the workplace.

“It’s going away from just clocking in hours and going more towards seeing if a student is really learning the content,” said Carl Einhaus, the director of student affairs at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

But it wasn’t necessarily the state’s intent to persuade districts to scrap their seat-time requirements and move to an entirely competency-based system, said Misti Ruthven, the executive director of innovation and pathways for the Colorado Department of Education.

When the guidelines were adopted by the State Board of Education, they made it possible for a district to go that route if they wanted, she said. “However, the board didn’t signal that there was only one way to adopt graduation guidelines,” she added.

Students can demonstrate proficiency in English and math in a variety of ways. The state guidelines include a “menu” of options, including earning a 430 in English and a 460 in math on the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; earning a score of 2 or higher out of 5 on an Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

Districts can adopt any or all of the 12 menu options. They can also set their own cut scores. For example, a district could require students to get a 3 or higher on an AP exam to qualify.

While the state hasn’t set any deadlines for districts, the guidelines are set to go into effect starting with the class of 2021. Those students are in eighth grade this year.

Denver Public Schools approved new graduation criteria in May. Students will still be required to take four years each of English and math, three years each of science and social studies, one year each of physical education and art or career and technical education, and eight electives.

But they will also have to demonstrate “college and career readiness” in English and math in one of 11 ways, including earning a C or better in a concurrent enrollment class.

Similarly, Aurora Public Schools will continue to require students to earn 22 credits to graduate, according to a policy adopted in June, including four credits each of math and English, three credits each of science and social studies, one world language credit and seven elective credits.

Like in Denver, students must also show proficiency in English and math in one of 11 ways.

Cherry Creek approved its changes in June as well, adopting the entire state menu.

“We’ll give (students) every possible way to do this,” said Associate Superintendent Scott Siegfried.

Siegfried noted that many Cherry Creek students already meet the competency requirements. But for high schoolers who are behind, he said the guidelines offer more leeway since those students can prove their competence in multiple ways.

“There are some students who develop at a different pace,” he said. “If they didn’t have a diploma, it could have held them back.”

Colorado Springs District 11, which approved its new graduation requirements in April, will allow students to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of ways — but not a capstone project.

“We did some research, looked at maybe ten states,” said John Keane, director of K-12 schools for the district. “We didn’t really think they actually drew out how proficient a student was. Also, the intensity required from our staff isn’t something we can tackle right now.”

Meanwhile, that’s where the small, rural Dolores County School District will put its focus. The district, located less than 10 miles from the Utah border, serves fewer than 300 students.

“Most, if not all, our emphasis will be on capstone projects through project-based learning, internships and mentorships,” said Superintendent Bruce Hankins.

“We just are too small to have resources to meet most of the other guidelines,” he added, “and strongly oppose utilizing a cut score or test to determine high school graduation.”

Elliott Asp, who as Colorado’s interim education commissioner played a key role in developing the new guidelines, said he is encouraged by districts adopting the entire menu of options provided by the state, and looking beyond test scores.

“It provides as many opportunities for kids to find their way through as possible, but still have some reasonable assurance that students have still have those knowledge skills that will help them master their lives once they leave high school,” said Asp, now a senior fellow with the education nonprofit Achieve, which helped develop the Common Core State Standards.

Several districts — including Boulder Valley, Poudre, Englewood, Adams 12 Five Star, Douglas County and Jefferson County — are still working to revise their requirements, according to representatives from those districts.

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.