FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Despite a barrage of criticism Thursday from teachers, superintendents and education-oriented groups, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis plans to push forward with proposed high school graduation requirements.

The Kentucky Department of Education held a public comment hearing that lasted less than two hours, with all but one speaker questioning various aspects of the proposed high school graduation requirements.

The proposed requirements will be brought to the Kentucky Board of Education during its meeting Wednesday.

“I’m guessing that what you’ll see us present to the state board of education will probably have some revisions, will have some changes,” Lewis told reporters after Thursday’s hearing.

“In terms of the big core concepts, if the question is have I heard anything that makes me believe that it is not essential that we ensure before a kid graduates from high school that they can demonstrate basic competence in reading and mathematics, no.”

That was a central complaint from those who addressed Lewis and other KDE staffers during Thursday’s hearing.

Under the current proposal, students who start high school in the 2020-21 school year will be required to pass a reading and math assessment, or otherwise demonstrate their competency in both subjects through portfolio work, before they can receive a diploma. The first tests would occur during their sophomore years, and those who fail can retake the exam as juniors or, if necessary, seniors.

Critics decried that proposed standard as another high-stakes testing method for kids and their teachers. Lewis said that aspect of the proposal would not necessitate an additional exam, which he’s not allowed to impose under law, but rather provide scores based on state assessments already required of students.

Perry Papka, deputy director of policy and research for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said his group agrees with the state’s assessment that Kentucky graduates too many students who lack the skills for future success.

But he said other states have abandoned the idea of requiring some form of exit examination before students get high school diplomas, he said, noting just 15 states require such a test and 11 have dropped the requirement since 2011.

“The research found little to suggest that either minimum competency exams or more rigorous standards-based exit exams impacted any of the studied outcomes,” Papka said, citing a 2010 study by the University of Texas. “Summarizing the main takeaway, the researchers noted the evidence reviewed indicates that exit tests have produced few of the expected benefits and have been associated with costs for the most disadvantaged students.”

For at-risk students and those with disabilities, needing to pass a “gate-keeping” standardized test can be “utter hell,” said Joshua Kumm, a special education teacher at Jefferson County Public Schools who attended Thursday’s hearing on behalf of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

“What are we doing here?” he asked. “We are continuing a tradition of identifying otherness, not determining if the student has what they need to be successful.”

But Lewis was not convinced that that aspect of the proposed high school graduation requirements should be scrapped.

In fact, he said that was among a number of misconceptions about the proposal he heard during Thursday’s hearing and received in emailed comments in advance of the meeting.  While it is a high-stakes examination, he said there are other avenues students can pursue to show their competency in reading and math.

“It’s in black and white,” Lewis said. “… The exam is high-stakes. The misconception is that that’s the only way that kids can demonstrate basic competence in reading and mathematics. There are two additional routes for kids to be able to demonstrate it, and that’s very different, very different than what most other states have done.”

Another misgiving for some speakers was the proposed requirement that students demonstrate career readiness.

Tim Brobowski, superintendent of Owsley County Schools, said that could be difficult for rural school districts like his that have declining student populations and limited opportunities for kids to show they’re ready to enter the workforce upon graduation.

For him, it’s a matter of equity for rural students who depend on poorer tax bases to fund much of their educational programs. The lack of jobs in areas like Owsley County would also make it difficult for them to show they’re ready for life after high school by getting at least 500 hours of work experience in four years, he said.

“I wish that we had these manufacturers and these jobs that kids could go in and mentor and shadow professionals in their work to kind of guide that career,” Brobowski said. “I love the idea.”

“My challenge, as well as so many other small rural districts in Kentucky, is how do we find places for our kids to go if we do go down that road,” he added. “And if there’s options that’s available for us, I think it can be worked out.”

Lewis said the proposed graduation requirements offer several options for students to demonstrate career readiness.

“There’s not a high school in Kentucky that can’t provide at least a couple of the transition readiness opportunities that are available to kids,” Lewis said. “And the one that I think lots of high schools will probably use quite a bit, particularly district like Owsley County, is the exceptional work experience route because it’s the most flexible one.”

Some asked Lewis and the education board to delay implementing the new high school graduation requirements, but the education commissioner said he’s heard from others who question why something hasn’t been done sooner.

“Just because the majority of feedback and comments that you’ve heard in that room were negative, you should not be mistaken to believe that that’s the feelings of the majority of Kentuckians,” Lewis told reporters.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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