When Tamara Patterson walked across the stage at her high school graduation, she didn't get a diploma. She got a certificate, a reminder that she did not pass the state's exit exam and would have to try again the next year.
"That haunted me for a long time," she said. "Do we want our children to have that same experience?"
The 38-year-old former elementary school teacher was one of 17 people who spoke during a public hearing on Thursday about Kentucky's proposed minimum high school graduation requirements. All but one opposed the new standards.
The new rules would require students to meet college and career readiness standards and demonstrate minimum competency in math and reading. One way they could do that is by taking a test beginning in the 10th grade, something critics liken to exit exams that have fallen out of favor in many other states.
But Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis called fears about the exit exam off base, noting students will have other ways to meet the requirements, including submitting a portfolio to their local school superintendent to demonstrate they can meet the standard.
"At least half of what I heard today is in opposition to what we have not proposed," he said.
Kentucky graduates nearly 90 percent of its high school students each year, one of the highest rates in the country. But last year, state officials said only 65 percent of those graduates met standards indicating they were ready for college or a career. The discrepancy has prompted Lewis, who has been on the job since April, to say Kentucky's high school diplomas are sometimes nothing more than "certificates of attendance."
That's why the new rules will require students to meet standards for college and career readiness. Students can do this by reaching benchmark scores on college entrance exams like the ACT or competing six or more hours of dual credit courses.
Or they could meet standards on industry certifications, completing at least six hours of career and technical education courses, completing an apprenticeship program or at least 500 hours of "exceptional work experience."
Karen Cheser, superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools, said she worried her son, who is a sophomore in high school, would have trouble meeting the requirements. She said he hasn't been able to meet the reading benchmark on the ACT because he struggles with ADHD, meaning he can't take dual credit courses.
She said he does not have time to get 500 hours of work experience because of his extracurricular activities. He wants to pursue a career in media arts, which she said require him to pass two tests to gain industry certification.
"Talk about high stakes testing," Cheser said. "If he can't pass both he is out of options."
Lewis noted the state offers scholarships for students to take career and technical education courses, which if completed would meet the graduation requirements without having to pass a test.
"I am confident there is not a school or a district in Kentucky that currently could not offer at least a couple of the avenues that are available to kids," Lewis said. "It is not true that the only way kids are able to demonstrate transition readiness has to end with a high stakes examination. That's simply not the case."
The state Board of Education advanced the new requirements in October, which launched a public comment period. The department will respond to those comments with a "statement of consideration." The board will then meet in December to decide whether to amend the regulations.
Lewis said some comments on Thursday were helpful, including concerns from Owsley County School District Superintendent Tim Bobrowski. He said he liked the idea of completing an apprenticeship program or 500 hours of work experience, but said those opportunities aren't available to his students who live in rural eastern Kentucky.
"I love the idea, I love the concepts, I just wish I could do them," he said.
Lewis called Bobrowski's comments "really great feedback" and said state officials would "continue to talk with him."