At a time when many states are ratcheting up their high school graduation requirements, critics say Louisiana’s new “career diploma” appears to represent a lowering of standards and expectations for students who aren’t headed to a four-year college.
But some state education leaders who had misgivings with the legislative effort this year to mandate the new diploma say they’ve been working hard to make sure that—within the constraints of the law—it holds real value for graduates. In fact, the state board of elementary and secondary education was ultimately handed considerable discretion to hash out some important details. State officials say the board is expected to complete its work on the diploma this month.
“We can shape it some, and I think we have, and we will continue to try to make sure the rigor is there,” said Charles E. Roemer, an elected board member from Baton Rouge. “My original contention was that we ought to be raising the bar, not lowering it. ... Unless the career diploma has proper rigor in it, I don’t believe we’re preparing our kids for the future.”
Proponents of the legislation, which won unanimous backing in the state Senate and a large majority in the House, say the new diploma is intended to stem the state’s dropout rate.
“This legislation gives us an opportunity to reach students that might otherwise slip through the cracks,” Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, said upon signing the measure in July. “Now ... we can cultivate these students’ interests and skills and help align them with a successful career path.”
Democratic Rep. James R. Fannin, the lead House sponsor, bristles at suggestions that the new diploma lowers standards.
“How much lower is your standard for that student that you push out and put on the street?” he said. “You tell me how we’re lowering it any lower than that.”
Recent state data suggest that about one-third of Louisiana’s nearly 700,000 public-school students do not graduate from high school on time.
The state board of education, which has already voted on many issues related to the new diploma, including curricular requirements, is expected at a meeting this month to wrap up its work fleshing out the new pathway. It has relied on the state’s broad-based High School Redesign Commission to provide recommendations in key areas.
About a dozen school districts began to implement the new diploma route this fall; the rest were granted waivers until next school year.
Paul G. Pastorek, the state superintendent of education, says that while he believes the legislative architects had good intentions, early on he had deep concerns with their approach. But he argues that, through negotiations on the bill and the state board’s more recent actions, the state is now on track to ensure the career diploma will have integrity.
“I feel very comfortable with where we are now, but it was hard to get here,” he said in an interview. “I’m sure there may be some people who still have some misgivings. It all happened very quickly, and it was not driven by the education community, it was driven by the legislature.”
The legislation comes amid a growing push in states and at the national level to establish a more demanding set of core expectations that all students should meet to be ready both for college and a career.
Most notably, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are spearheading an initiative to devise common academic standards across states. Louisiana is one of the 48 states that have joined that effort. In September, a draft of college- and career-readiness standards was issued. (“New Standards Draft Offers More Details,” Sept. 30, 2009.)
Louisiana itself recently completed a separate, and exhaustive, process to craft new graduation requirements, based on recommendations from its High School Redesign Commission. The state made the so-called Louisiana Core 4 Curriculum—which seeks to make students both career- and college-ready—the default for all students entering the 9th grade. Students may opt out after the sophomore year and pursue a regular diploma through the Basic Core Curriculum.
Daria L. Hall, the director of K-12 policy at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said she was surprised to see the new career diploma emerge in Louisiana. She said the state has been making “strong movements” toward setting high expectations for students, but she sees the new diploma as reversing course.
“This policy creates a path to lowered expectations and diminished opportunities for some students, and we know from experience in other states that ‘some’ often means low-income students, and students of color.”
Some observers say the career-diploma law creates a loophole in the state’s high-stakes testing program.
Louisiana has long required all students to pass tests in both reading and mathematics in the 4th and 8th grades to advance to the next grade. The new law says that 8th graders who wish to pursue the career diploma and are 15 or older need a passing score in only one of those subjects.
“That was one of our objections—the idea of lowering the standards that we’ve worked so hard to get in place and adhere to,” said Karen M. Rowley, a policy analyst at the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a research institute and government watchdog. “If they can’t read or write or do basic math, how are they going to succeed in any career track?”
Mr. Pastorek, the state schools chief, said that he, too, was concerned about that legislative provision, but is comfortable with how the state board has responded.
“What we said was, go to the 9th grade building, but you must take and pass a remediation course before you go to 9th grade algebra or 9th grade English,” he said. “What we’re requiring, while not maintaining the full integrity of the [high-stakes testing] program, creates an alternative method, and I’m comfortable [with it].”
Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, in Denver, said Louisiana’s new career diploma appears to be unusual “in the sense that few, if any, other states are explicitly setting lower expectations for students following a career/technical pathway.”
She noted, for instance, that some states, such as North Carolina and Georgia, have recently revised their graduation requirements, replacing systems in which students had to choose either a college-preparatory or technical pathway, and adopting a college- and work-ready curriculum for all students.
An Electrician, a Welder
The Louisiana law lays out some course requirements for students seeking the career diploma, that are different from the college-preparatory curriculum, with more room for electives relevant to a particular career path.
“If you want to go and be an electrician, or it you wanted to be a welder, your first two years [of high school] are pretty similar,” said Rep. Fannin, but later courses could be “more relevant to what your career looks like.”
In math, students on the state’s college-preparatory pathway must take four units, including Algebra 1, Algebra 2, geometry, and one other advanced math course, such as precalculus. Students pursuing a career diploma must also take four math units, but the law’s only explicit requirement is Algebra 1.
Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington group established by business leaders and governors that advocates tougher academic standards, said omitting Algebra 2 for career-diploma students was troubling.
“It might significantly reduce the opportunities for those students,” he said. “Many other states are making advanced algebra the requirement.”
In general, Mr. Gandal said, he has no objection to vocationally oriented courses, but “our concern is when it’s a substitution for a rigorous core academic curriculum.”
Brigitte T. Nieland, the education director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said even students who are not going to college need more skills and knowledge than in the past.
“It’s a sophisticated world, and it’s getting more sophisticated by the millisecond,” she said.
Mr. Pastorek said recent state board actions will ensure that students pursuing the career diploma will take meaningful courses in math and other subjects.
“We’ve approved a whole list of courses that would satisfy some of the blanks left in the law,” he said, “and we ended up with courses that will have integrity.”
In addition, he emphasized that, if the state school board approves a recommendation just set forth by the High School Redesign Commission, students seeking the career diploma will have to pass the same end-of-course exams all other Louisiana students will face as of next school year, when the state replaces its high school exit exam with end-of-course tests in several subjects.
As a result, “there is still a stringent accountability piece in place,” Mr. Pastorek said.
Penny M. Dastugue, a state board member appointed by Gov. Jindal, said she still has misgivings about the career diploma.
One concern is that students who earn it will not have met all the course requirements to be eligible for a state scholarship under the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS. The merit-based program helps pay tuition at community colleges, technical colleges, and four-year colleges.
“They can go to a two-year college [with the diploma], but it has taken them out of getting a scholarship,” Ms. Dastugue said.
More broadly, Ms. Dastugue worries that students and their families are being asked to make a big decision in the 8th grade that may keep a four-year college out of reach.
“Some kids, ... they’re going to want to take the easy pathway,” she said.
At the same time, the state board has approved a measure allowing students one annual opportunity to switch into or out of the career-diploma pathway.
The 23,000 student Rapides Parish school district, in Alexandria, La., is among those that have begun to make available the new graduation path this school year.
“We already had some career offerings, welding, hotel management; we had career clusters anyway, so it was fairly easy for us to start,” said Gary L. Jones, the district superintendent and the president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.
Mr. Jones admits that he was initially skeptical of the career diploma.
“I’m one of the ones who believes there really is only one high school standard, but the legislature saw the need for it,” he said. “But I’m convinced now that ... it is something that kids will benefit from.”
Ultimately, he added, a lot rests with districts to make sure they offer a quality program.
“I think we can do that,” he said, “and salvage a bunch of kids who otherwise might have gotten pushed off to the side.”
Coverage of efforts to promote new routes to college and career success is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Diploma Sparks College/Career Dialogue in La.