The Graduation Maze

Paths to a diploma are changing

Eastlake High School graduation 2014. Photo courtesy Lake Washington School District; Graphic by Alex Schloer

The path to high school graduation is no longer a path. It’s a maze of course requirements, tests, assessments and mandated student plans.

For the next several years, parents may have a tough time keeping score while the state tosses the old test — the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE) — and brings on the Smarter Balanced assessments based on the Common Core state standards.

Just learning the lingo of education can be an immersion course for parents. In addition to Smarter Balanced and Common Core, there’s Running Start, EOC, ELA, STEM and MAP, to name
just a few.

Eventually, all students will be assessed under the Common Core, but for now it means not all students will be taking the same tests to graduate. Spring was the last time students could take the HSPE. Starting this fall, students who have yet to pass the HSPE will be tested under one of the Smarter Balanced assessments.

Confused yet?

Also new this year, the Legislature has eliminated the so-called “senior project” as a state requirement. Instead, local school boards can decide whether to keep it. Ironically, the change in the law was the result of a Yakima student’s senior project. Tiffany Stewart of East Valley High School introduced a bill in the Legislature outlining the reasons a senior project should not be required to graduate. And it passed.

Coming for the Class of 2018 — this year’s freshmen — is a new law requiring 24 credits for graduation, an increase from the current state minimum of 20.

State leaders say these changes are an attempt to bring more uniformity across the state and nation to what it means to be a high school graduate, and to prepare students for an increasingly complex world that is measuring them by stiffer standards than their parents had to meet right out of high school.

“What we expect of students should pretty much remain true no matter what ZIP code they’re living in,” said Ben Rarick, executive director of the state Board of Education.

“What students need in order to be successful after high school doesn’t really vary much from state to state,” Rarick explained. “And what we found in the decades leading up to adoption of Common Core is that you can have a student in one state that would be deemed not proficient in math, let’s say, and then they could move over the border to another state and with a change in location, all of a sudden that student was proficient because that state had a different definition” or set of requirements for a high school diploma.

Washington is one of 43 states that have adopted the Common Core. Under the Common Core, there are benchmarks to measure what students should know in each grade, and what they should know by the time they graduate. Individual states (and even districts) devise their curricula to align with the standard. In Washington, student progress will be measured with Smarter Balanced tests in English Language Arts and end-of-course exams in math and science.

Policymakers say a national standard should have enough “rigor” so that high school graduates are qualified to pursue a college education or post-secondary training anywhere in the country. In the world, even. American students simply do not do as well in math and the sciences compared to students in other industrialized countries. Given the mobility of today’s workforce, state leaders say that meeting a nationally recognized standard will help our students compete.

Moreover, “and this is not uncommon,” Rarick said, students who have graduated from high school in Washington can find to their dismay that they can’t pass a college admissions exam even though they took Advanced Placement (AP) or college-prep classes in high school.

More than 50 percent of recent high school graduates in Washington needed to take pre-college math before admission to community and technical colleges, according to the state Board of Education’s website.

“Ultimately, I think everyone is going to appreciate the clarity of the standard so that we’re not continuing to tell students that they’re ready for college when they aren’t,” Rarick says.

But for now, there’s a transition period. Each of the classes of 2015 to 2018 — students who are in high school this year — has a different set of requirements to meet.

Students who want to attend college always have had to take more classes than their peers to make sure they graduate with enough credits to be considered for college because the state’s 20-credit high school graduation requirement does not meet the minimum admission standards. Of the 20 credits currently required for graduation in Washington, 5.5 are electives. This is the wiggle room where students add classes to qualify for college or post-secondary training.

In addition to the number of credits, students need the right credits. For example, four-year colleges and universities require two years of foreign language for admission. Washington requires none for a high school diploma.

Bottom line: If all high school graduates are going to be ready for college, technical or trade school, then high school is going to be harder.

How much is this costing?

Nobody knows how much this will cost, only how much the Legislature agreed to pay.

Lawmakers found $97 million for the state’s 139 school districts by removing the hotly debated mandate that schools must increase instruction on average 80 hours a year in grades 7-12 and replace it with the 24-credit rule. The state also removed the 150-hour “seat-time” requirement for earning a credit. Schools now can employ more options for granting credit, such as online instruction or after-school make-ups, when appropriate, instead of requiring students to retake the entire course.

Finding enough teachers to fulfill these requirements will be a huge undertaking for some districts, so the Legislature also decided that school districts, on an individual basis, can ask for a delay of up to two years.

The “right” credits

Under the 24-credit plan, students may choose their own path in their High School and Beyond Plan.

“It wasn’t that long ago when Washington state was one of very few states that only required two credits of math and two of science to graduate from high school,” Rarick said. “That put us, in the minds of many, in a noncompetitive situation. We saw that playing out in this state in the economy. We have one of the states that creates the most new jobs in areas of STEM education and yet we are one of the states that also imports the most talent from outside the state to fill those jobs. One of the major reasons that major employers listed was just a lack of qualified students within the state given the low expectations.”

As part of the 24-Credit Career and College Ready graduation requirements, the Legislature has directed the state Board of Education to develop basic graduation requirements that automatically put students on a college-bound course of study.

The key is increased rigor with “increased flexibility,” Rarick said. This is where a student’s High School and Beyond Plan comes in.

The world needs lab technicians, auto mechanics, welders and cosmetologists, and if that’s where a student’s passion lies, then students can develop Personalized Pathways that will result in qualifying for the post-high school training of their choice.

Districts must establish “equivalency” credits for students who are taking Career and Technical Education classes, especially in science and math. Career-related courses in electronics, HVAC, automotive technology and nursing, to name a few, should have enough rigor so students are earning the “equivalent” required math or science credit.

What About Students who Struggle?

Washington’s graduation rate was 77.2 percent in 2013, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which posts the latest data on its website under “Report Card.” That number goes up to 78.9 percent when you factor in “super seniors,” those students who needed an extra semester or two to graduate.

Flip that over and it means nearly 23 percent of students are not graduating on time, and more than 20 percent are not graduating at all. Moreover, more than 20 percent aren’t passing math,
and more than 30 percent failed the biology test.

In addition, under the previous testing system, just 53.1 percent of students statewide passed the end-of-course exam in math the first time they took it. That number increased to 76.5 percent on the second try, while 83 to 85 percent of students were passing the reading and writing exams.

The success rate for the end-of-course test in biology was 68.6 percent. Passing biology is required for graduation, so no matter how well they do on the reading or writing test, that’s nearly 32 percent of students who aren’t getting out of high school until they pass biology (or demonstrate proficiency in an acceptable Collection of Evidence).

Twenty-four credits may seem like a huge jump, but most school districts already have additional requirements set by their local school board. Twenty-two credits is common, and these credits tend to include a requirement for a foreign language or additional health and fitness classes. Under the state’s new rules, high schools can waive up to two credits on a case-by-case basis for students who are struggling, provided they have a High School and Beyond Plan.

In 2009, during a transcript study, Rarick said, it became apparent that a typical high school student can move into his or her senior year and be very close to graduation, needing only a credit or two.

“I think it meant systemically that the senior year wasn’t as meaningful and rigorous as the three previous years,” he said.

“When the entire system is set up where you can meet your graduation requirement minimums early in your senior year, it sends a subtle message that we don’t’ really expect much in their senior year.

“We make a big deal of high school graduation, but do we portray it as the end too much?” Rarick asked. “With any policy we create, we’re trying to have a common theme about graduation as one stamp on the passport. And if you’re stopping there, you might be shortchanging yourself.”

Standards Students Need to Meet

Washington State History — This class remains a requirement for all students in the state in order to graduate.
Math — All students must earn at least three credits of math, two of which should be algebra and geometry.
English — This year’s seniors need three English credits for graduation, but the class of 2016 and beyond need four.
Science — All current high school students need to earn at least two science credits, one of which must be a “lab.” Starting with next year’s freshmen, a third science credit is required and two of the science credits must be labs.
Social Studies — Seniors in the class of 2015 need 2.5 credits in social studies to graduate next spring, including U.S. history and contemporary world history/geography. If a student passed Washington State History before high school, the additional half credit is an elective, otherwise, state history is required in high school. Starting next year with the class of 2015-16, students also must take a semester of civics, bringing to three the number of social studies credits required for graduation.
Art — All current high school students need one credit of art to graduate. A second art credit will be required for next year’s freshmen, the class of 2019, and beyond, although it can be waived as part of a student’s chosen field of study in his or her High School and Beyond Plan.
Foreign Language — World (foreign) language is not currently a state requirement. But two years of foreign language is required for admission to college, so under the 24-credit plan, all students entering high school in fall 2015 will need two world language credits to graduate.
Personalized Pathway Requirement — Two PPRs can be used in place of the foreign language when the credits lead to a post-high school career or educational outcome chosen by the student based on the student’s High School and Beyond Plan, which may include career and technical education courses.
High School and Beyond Plan — Required for all students. And, the class of 2019 should have this plan in place by ninth grade or earlier, upon which all course-taking decisions will be based in high school. The plan can be amended.
Certificate of Academic Achievement (CAA) — Required to graduate. This is awarded when a
student passes the required state tests in reading and writing, math and biology. Under the Common Core and Smarter Balanced system, the required tests will be English, Language Arts (ELA), math and, eventually, science.
Culminating Project — Often called the Senior Project, this was eliminated as a state requirement by the Legislature last session. Now local districts may decide whether to require it.
Starting next year with the class of 2019, the “default” path for students who don’t know what they want to do yet is for counselors to enroll those students in college-bound courses.
Students who don’t plan to attend college have several options. For example, seven of the 24 credits can be substituted in their High School and Beyond Plan for other post-high school training. Parents will be asked to sign off on these plans. Finally, students must attempt 24 credits, but the high school can waive up to two credits if the student fails a course. But even if they fail the course, students still have to pass the state test or demonstrate proficiency via an approved alternative because districts cannot waive the required assessments.

Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction
State Board of Education

Back to School Vocabulary
AP: Advanced Placement
CCSS: Common Core State Standards. In the works since 2011, the Common Core is scheduled to be fully implemented in Washington state this fall along with a new assessment system to measure student achievement.
CAA: Certificate of Academic Achievement. Awarded when high school students complete required state tests.
CIA: Certificate of Individual Achievement. Awarded when students in special education fulfill their IEP for graduation.
Choice Agreement: A form that is required if a student wants to attend a district outside of the district where they reside.
COE: Collection of Evidence.  An alternative to End-of-Course exams when a student is trying to demonstrate proficiency in a course required for graduation but did not pass the state test.
DAPE: Developmentally Appropriate Proficiency Exam
ELA: English Language Arts
EOC: End-of-Course
ELL: English Language Learner.
504 Plan: Plan for ensuring that a student with a disability is accommodated.
FTE:  Full-time Enrollment.
GPA: Grade-point average.
HSPE: High School Proficiency Exam. Previously required for graduation in several subjects, but now being replaced by Smarter Balanced assessments.
IEP: Individualized Education Plan for students needing special services.
LAP: Learning Assistance Program.
MAP: Measures of Academic Progress.  Test used by many school districts to gather a snapshot of student ability in order to target areas of needed instruction. Controversial when used to measure teacher performance.
McCleary Decision: Decision from January 2012 in which the Washington State Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that found the state of Washington has underfunded education in violation of the state constitution.
McKinney Vento Act:  Frequently called the Homeless Act.  Students in disruptive circumstances who must move away from their neighborhood school retain the right to complete the year at the school where they started and districts must find ways to help.
MSP: Measurements of Student Progress
Running Start: Students who pass the college entrance exam can take college classes instead of high school classes as part of their high school schedule and get a “running start” on college while earning their high school diploma.
SAT: Scholastic Aptitude Test. Also, PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test)
SBA: Smarter Balanced Assessments. The tests that are replacing the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE) this school year along with the move to the Common Core State Standards.
SSID: State Student Identification. Every student has their own unique number.
Super Senior: Nickname for students in their fifth year of high school.
TPEP: Teacher Principal Evaluation Program. The new, standardized system by which teachers are evaluated.
WASL: Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Test was replaced by the HSPE in 2009, which is being replaced this fall by Smarter Balanced.

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