Louisiana’s Imminent Graduation Option Draws Fire

By Sean Cavanagh — July 06, 2009 3 min read
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UPDATE: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has signed legislation creating a career-focused diploma for high school graduates. Critics says it will lower standards (see below), though Jindal, echoing the views of other supporters, argues that it will help students who would “otherwise slip through the cracks.” Expect these tensions between advocates of higher standards and those who call for alternative graduation options to play out around the country.


As states raise course-taking and graduation requirements, Louisiana officials have gone in a different direction. Whether it’s a better or worse direction for students is a matter of opinion.

The state appears set to approve a new curriculum, which emphasizes career skills, as an option for high school students. Currently, high school students in Louisiana who pursue a traditional college-prep route must take four units of math, English, science, and social studies/social sciences, according to this story in the Baton Rouge Advocate. There’s also a less-demanding option. Under the new measure, which was approved by an overwhelming margin in both chambers of the legislature, some students would be allowed to graduate earning four units of English, with more freedom as to which courses they take, and four math credits, a few of which could be tied to career-oriented tracks. They would also be required to take three science credits, two of them tied to career options; three social studies credits; and seven other career-oriented credits, the story says. One especially controversial piece of the legislation would lower the passing requirements on the state’s 8th grade English and math test, in allowing some students to pursue the new curricular option. Here’s a recent description by the state Department of Education:

“Under present standards, students must score Approaching Basic and Basic in English and math on the state’s 8th grade LEAP test in order to advance to the 9th grade. However, if [the bill] clears the Senate, students who are 15 years old, or who will turn 15 during the upcoming school year will be allowed to progress to 9th grade and pursue the career diploma if they score Approaching Basic or higher on either the English or mathematics portion of the LEAP test. In fact, all students will have the option of pursuing the career diploma.”

The measure, which Gov. Bobby Jindal says he will sign, was opposed by a number of school officials who contend that it will lower standards in the state. The critics include state schools Superintendent Paul Pastorek and the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit business-advocacy organization. The state’s education department, in explaining its opposition, notes that the Louisiana students can already pursue numerous career tracks through the college-prep diploma. But lawmakers see the new path as necessary to prevent dropouts and give students a greater range of course options that will keep them interested in school.

“They don’t see any relevance in reading Beowulf and Chaucer and trigonometry,” state Sen. Bob Kostelka, a Republican sponsor, said of those students.

“It is ludicrous to say we are dumbing down education,” Rep. Jim Fannin, a Democrat and bill sponsor, told the Advocate.

How does this mesh with Louisiana, just this month, agreeing to join the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, in which states agree to refashion their standards, tests, and professional development to blend tech literacy, communication, and entrepreneurship into classes covering core academic content? How might Louisiana’s decision shape the thinking of lawmakers in other states who are worried about students failing to keep up with rising academic expectations? Perhaps the biggest question is this: If states are going to allow career tracks to graduation, what’s to prevent students from slipping into courses that don’t challenge them or prepare them for a two- or four-year college, or a demanding job?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.