New Jersey has revised its graduation requirements to enable students to apply many out-of-school experiences toward their diplomas and to use assessments to bypass more of their traditional coursework.
At a time when many states are ratcheting up core-subject requirements to meet accountability demands, the Jan. 7 decision by the New Jersey board of education drew notice because it allows all high school students more flexibility in meeting graduation requirements.
Arnold G. Hyndman, the president of the 13-member state board, said the revisions are intended to let students use a broader range of experiences to help them excel in high school, college, or the work world.
“I know that what we’re doing in New Jersey really goes against the grain, but we’re trying to create an educational environment where students can, inside and outside the classroom, get all that they need to know,” he said.
He cautioned that any program designed under the revised requirements still must ensure that students learn the content required under the state’s curriculum standards. “We’re not looking to create fluffy little projects that don’t teach kids what they need to know,” Mr. Hyndman said.
New Jersey’s decision unfolds against a backdrop of increased concern about—and focus on—the shortcomings of American high school education. Many experts advocate beefing up secondary school curricula so all students must complete a more rigorous, college-preparatory education. Others contend that multiple paths are necessary to serve a broad range of students (“Every Student Seen to Need College Prep,” Oct. 10, 2001.) The changes do not affect the state’s current requirement of 110 credits for graduation, though districts can choose to require more. Students still are required to take at least four years of language arts literacy, and three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies to earn a standard diploma.
The new rules reduce from two years to one the requirement for study in visual/performing/practical arts, and add a year of study in career education, consumer/family/life skills or vocational-technical education. The foreign- language requirement remains one year; the state had intended to increase that to two, but shelved that plan.
Under the revisions, students may meet the foreign-language requirement by passing a district assessment. Mr. Hyndman said the move was designed to offer students an incentive to begin foreign-language study at an earlier age.
The board said that students now may meet graduation requirements by combining traditional coursework with interdisciplinary or theme-based courses, independent study, co-curricular or extracurricular activities, exchange programs, distance learning, internships and community service, or other programs their districts might approve.
Districts may use performance or competency assessments to approve students’ completion of programs designed to meet the state’s curriculum standards, the panel said.
Jennifer Dounay, who tracks state policy on graduation requirements for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver- based research group, said New Jersey’s subject-matter minimums are typical of those required by many states. The Garden State requires a year of foreign language, when most require none, she said.
New Jersey may be the only state other than Maryland that allows students to apply out-of-school experiences toward graduation requirements, Ms. Dounay said. Maryland requires students to complete 75 hours of community service to earn a diploma.
The New Jersey Education Association is critical of the revisions.
“They’re holding our teachers to high standards, yet they’re going to allow our kids to opt out,” said Edithe A. Fulton, the president of the National Education Association affiliate. “What are colleges looking for, and will kids really be prepared?”
But David H. Moyer, the superintendent of the 4,300-student Deptford Township public schools in southern New Jersey, welcomed the changes. He believes they will enable high-performing students to move on to more challenging study or experiences, and offer more varied opportunities to keep all kinds of students interested.
For any youngster, real-world experience enriches classroom study, Mr. Moyer said. He cited a popular course in his district that allows high school science students to study forensics in a real crime laboratory.
“What the state board did is really forward-thinking,” Mr. Moyer said. “I think it’s the direction we should be going in.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as New Jersey Expands Routes to Graduation