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Published in Print: June 22, 2005, as States Raise Bar For High School Diploma

States Raise Bar for High School Diploma

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Gov. Brad Henry of Oklahoma prepares to sign legislation that strengthens high school course requirements, during a ceremony at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on June 7.
Gov. Brad Henry of Oklahoma prepares to sign legislation that strengthens high school course requirements, during a ceremony at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on June 7.
—Courtesy of Oklahoma governor's office.

It has been less than six months since the nation’s governors gathered for a summit on high schools, and already at least half a dozen states have enacted policies that require students to complete tougher academic programs to earn a diploma.

Although Arizona lawmakers voted to give high school seniors added flexibility in passing the state’s exit exam, states typically are sending a stricter message by telling students they must take more courses in mathematics, science, and other core academic areas.

The flurry of activity is evidence that demands for making high school more rigorous, which state and business leaders echoed at the Feb. 26-27 conference, have gained traction in the states.

“The number of states that have moved, just in this legislative session, to increase graduation requirements is clearly based on the momentum coming out of the summit,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit group that co-sponsored the Washington event along with the National Governors Association. “I see that continuing to build.”

On June 7, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, signed the Achieving Classroom Excellence measure, which requires all high school students to take a college-bound curriculum, starting in 2006-07, unless their parents sign an opt-out consent form.

The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support, also increases current graduation requirements to include three years of high school mathematics at or above the level of Algebra 1. Starting with entering 9th graders in 2008, students must pass four out of six end-of-instruction tests in core academic subjects to receive a diploma. To encourage high school seniors to take college courses, the plan requires the state to pay tuition for up to six hours of college instruction per semester.

Gov. Henry said his initiative, which had strong backing from the business community, “pushes students to take a tougher academic workload to better prepare them for life after high school.”

Indiana also enacted legislation that requires students to complete a college-preparatory curriculum—known as the “Core 40”—to earn a diploma, beginning with the class of 2011. As in Oklahoma, parents would have to request that their children be exempted from the requirement. Students with disabilities would follow the recommendations in their individualized education plan.

Starting with the class of 2011, with some exceptions, students would have to complete the Core 40 curriculum for admission to Indiana’s four-year public colleges.

Indiana is one of 13 states that joined the American Diploma Project Network at the summit. States in the Achieve-managed project commit to preparing all students for work and college, in part by raising graduation standards. This month, Achieve announced five new members— Alabama, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—bringing the total to 18.

Rigor and Relevance

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, a Democrat, also made strengthening graduation standards one of his top legislative priorities.

Under his High Standards, Better Schools plan, which passed the Senate by 56-0 and the House by 104-10, students will have to take a third year of math (including algebra and geometry), two years of science, four years of English, and two years of “writing intensive” courses to earn a diploma.

Oregon lawmakers similarly are considering boosting the number of math and English courses needed to graduate.

In Mississippi, the state board of education in April passed a plan that increases graduation requirements for all students, beginning with 9th graders in the fall of 2008. Under the plan, students will have to complete four years each of English, math, science, and social studies to earn a diploma, including two years of math beyond Algebra 1, at least one laboratory-based science course, and economics.

The state has been revising the actual content of its high school curriculum since 2004, when an independent study by the Washington-based Council for Basic Education concluded that the curriculum lacked rigor.

South Carolina, in contrast, has not increased the credits needed to graduate. Instead, the Education and Economic Development Act of 2005, signed by Republican Gov. Mark Sanford in May, will reorganize the curriculum around “career clusters of study,” such as health science, information technology, and finance.

State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum said: “This is about helping students see the importance of the skills they’re learning. If they can apply those skills to real-life situations, then it’s more likely that they will buy into what our schools are trying to accomplish.”

The law also requires the state to provide more guidance counselors to work with students and their parents to explore career interests and plan for the future. It calls for an average of 300 students per counselor by the 2006-07 school year, instead of the current average of 500 students.

Model Core Curricula

Other states are working on model high school curricula that provide students with better preparation for work and college.

Legislation signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa this month requires the state board of education to devise a model core curriculum. The bill also sets a goal that 80 percent of Iowa graduates, excluding special education students, successfully complete a core curriculum by July 1, 2009.

The law requires districts to report publicly on the percent of graduates who complete a core curriculum. Beginning in July 2006, every district must develop a plan with each 8th grader for completing a core curriculum in high school and report to the student and his or her parents each year on progress.

“There was some concern that we just, literally, didn’t know with certain kids what kinds of classes they were taking,” said Jeff Berger, a legislative liaison in the state department of education.

The Delaware education department also is working on a model curriculum that would better prepare students for college or technical careers. The state plans to assist interested districts in doing a “gap analysis” to see how well their requirements align with the state’s model curriculum, and it will provide professional development for teachers.

Delaware lawmakers also scrapped a three-tiered diploma system, which was never implemented, after many parents voiced concern that the lowest-level diploma, intended for students who did not pass state tests, would have little value in the marketplace.

Instead, Delaware will offer two types of diplomas for the classes of 2006 and 2007: a “standard” diploma and a “distinguished” diploma. In addition to meeting course requirements, the latter will be based on a combination of state test scores and other academic indicators, which are still being determined. Beginning with the class of 2008, the state will offer only one type of diploma for all students.

Reprieve in Arizona

In contrast to the ratcheting up that is going on in many states, Arizona has temporarily lowered its graduation requirements.

In March, the state board of education reduced the passing scores for the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, tests that students must pass to graduate, beginning with the class of 2006.

Then in May, lawmakers voted to permit students scheduled to graduate in 2006 and 2007 to apply grades of A, B, or C in some high school courses toward their scores on the tests in reading, writing, and math. The extra points can count for up to 25 percent of a student’s AIMS scores.

Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said this month that the specifics were still being worked out by the state school board.

Tom Horne, Arizona’s state superintendent of schools, opposed any lowering of the requirements and has requested a state attorney general’s opinion on which coursework might apply. The state board was tentatively scheduled to discuss the plan last week.

In California, bills to delay the high-stakes exit exam for students in low-performing schools and to permit districts to give alternative assessments have been diluted since their introduction.

Assembly Bill 1531 now would not authorize the use of any alternatives objected to by the superintendent of public instruction. Senate Bill 517 would require the state to certify that students in low-performing high schools had access to the minimal resources needed to pass the tests, such as certified teachers, counselors, adequate textbooks, and supplementary instruction. It also would require the state to study alternatives to the exit test.

Vol. 24, Issue 41, Pages 1,28

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