Kentucky graduates nearly 90 percent of its high school seniors every year, one of the highest rates in the country.
But last year, state officials said, only 65 percent of those graduates met standards preparing them for college or a career. That's why the Kentucky Board of Education voted Wednesday to adopt something many other states are abandoning: exit exams.
The board, appointed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, voted unanimously to give key approval for new minimum high school graduation requirements. State officials will next take public comments on the new rules, with the board scheduled to vote on any changes in December.
The new rules mean that, to graduate, students must meet college or career readiness standards, like completing advanced placement courses or an approved apprenticeship program. They would also have to take a test beginning in the 10th grade to measure their math and reading skills. Only students who show "minimum competency" can graduate, with some exceptions. The tests would begin in 2022.
Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, citing research from the Kentucky Center for Statistics, said of the more than 26,000 Kentucky high school graduates in 2010 who went to college, more than 16,000 of them did not complete any programs. That group now has average salaries of about $20,000 a year, while the 6,800 students who completed four-year degrees have average salaries of more than $31,000.
"We hand high school diplomas to kids, telling them to their faces they are ready to go on when we know in our hearts that all we've really given them is a certificate of attendance," Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said. "We cannot continue in that respect."
But education advocates warn that the new standards mean fewer minority and low income students will graduate high school. Testing shows 67 percent of Kentucky's white eighth-grade students are proficient in reading while just 38 percent of black students meet the same standard. The disparity is worse for math.
That's one reason many of Kentucky's education advocacy groups have either not endorsed the rules or opposed them. The proposal failed to pass the Local Superintendents Advisory Council because no one would make the motion to vote on it, according to chairman Jerry Green. A coalition of advocacy groups, led by the Prichard Committee, asked the board to shelve the proposal and come up with a new one. Prichard Committee Executive Director Brigitte Blom Ramsey called the exams "a high-stakes requirement on students."
"Just putting the burden on them, it could ultimately be harmful," she said.
Fifteen states still require exit exams for a high school diploma, according to the Education Commission of the States. Since 2011, 11 states have dropped exit exam requirements. Indiana will join them beginning in the 2019 school year, according to Jennifer Zinth, principal for high school and STEM with the commission.
"Some states are concerned about the fairness factor of withholding a diploma after a kid has been through 13 years of public school (for) one test," Zinth said.
Lewis said Kentucky's exit exam would measure only reading and math. Students could take the test multiple times. If they still can't pass it, they can appeal to their local superintendent. Students would have to show they can do reading and math at an eighth-grade level, a standard lower than what's required for a GED diploma. Lewis said it would prepare students for jobs but added "it might not be a $15 or $20 an hour job."
The low standard worried Board of Education member Joe Papalia, the CEO of a welding company. He asked Lewis if he would be happy if his daughter met the minimum standard to graduate, and Lewis said "no."
"OK, so why are we happy for other people's children?" Papalia asked.
Lewis said Kentucky will eventually raise its high school graduation standards. But he said the state has to take it slow to give teachers time to get their students up to the standard. He said imposing a tougher standard right now would be too much.
"I think the impact would be too great," he said.