Kentucky's education commissioner has scaled back proposed new high school graduation requirements after some districts worried they wouldn't have the resources needed for their students to graduate. Wayne Lewis announced the changes Monday, two days before the state Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the new requirements after a public comment period.
At a public hearing last week, some superintendents of rural school districts worried they could not offer all of the options to their students, including apprenticeship programs and 500 hours of "exceptional work experience."
"The concern from the field was that the step forward we were proposing was too big a step," Lewis said. "It is still a step forward, but it is a smaller step."
The new requirements are designed to better prepare students for either a career or to pursue a degree at a college or university. Kentucky has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, with about 90 percent of its students earning diplomas each year. But state education officials say only about 60 percent of those students meet standards showing they are ready for a college or a career.
The first proposal, initially approved in October, would have required students to meet standards for "transition readiness" to graduate. The new proposal offers students a choice among seven "graduation qualifiers" that are not as rigorous as the first proposal.
For example, the first proposal would have accepted a benchmark score in reading and math on a college admission exam like the ACT. The new proposal loosens that standard, only requiring students meet the benchmark in one area, not both. And if students could not meet the standard in a college admission exam, the state would accept a benchmark score in a less rigorous college placement exam.
Another option under the first proposal was for students to gain certification in a certain industry, as approved by the Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board. But the new proposal would accept an easier standard: students who complete at least four courses within a "career pathway" as approved by the Kentucky Department of Education.
"Do I believe that by students meeting one of these qualifiers that they are ready for postsecondary education or ready to go into the workforce and get a job where they can take care of themselves? Maybe, maybe not," Lewis said. "But I do believe I am confident that with this proposal the expectation for minimum high school graduation in Kentucky is a more rigorous expectation than what we currently have."
The changes come after a public hearing last week where 16 of the 17 people who spoke opposed the plan, including education advocacy groups, school superintendents, teachers and a high school student. Lewis said the changes show the department values the feedback.
The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an education advocacy group, said in a statement it is glad Lewis is "being receptive to feedback" and looked forward to reviewing the proposal in more detail. But they again renewed their call for the state Board of Education to delay voting on the new requirements.
"There is broad agreement that too many kids are not getting all they need out of high school," the Prichard Committee said in a statement posted to the organization's Twitter account. "But the call at last week's hearing was near universal for the Kentucky Board of Education to table the proposal and have authentic engagement with stakeholders to craft solutions."
Other aspects of the proposal did not change. Students will have to show a "basic competency" in reading and math to graduate. They can do this by meeting the minimum required scores in reading and math in tests taken in the eighth and 10th grades. Most education advocacy groups have opposed this, arguing it places too much emphasis on a test. But Lewis noted students can take the test twice a year. Plus, students can bypass the test by presenting a portfolio of work demonstrating they have met the standard, among other options.