Ky. Board of Education may toughen high school graduation standards

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Kentucky Board of Education gave a green light to new state high school graduation requirements Wednesday.

The new requirements, passed unanimously by the board, now go to a 30-day public comment period followed by additional review at the panel’s December meeting.

The graduation standards, if ultimately approved, will begin with next year’s high school freshmen, but the mandated reading and mathematics assessments that have drawn scrutiny from some education-focused groups will start with freshmen who enter school during the 2020-21 year.

Students who don’t pass the basic competency exams in their sophomore years can appeal the results and build a portfolio to demonstrate their grasp of reading and math. The graduation standards also require students to demonstrate college or career readiness before they graduate and drop Algebra II as a required course.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis – whose four-year, $200,000 contract was also approved at Wednesday’s meeting – lamented during Wednesday’s meeting that despite strong graduation numbers, many Kentucky high school graduates are not prepared for life as a college student or as a member of the workforce.

For instance, Lewis cited statistics that show 11,336 of the 37,217 Kentucky high school seniors in the 2009-10 academic year had no college experience and earn an average salary of $19,990. Of the 25,851 who entered college, 16,129 did not earn a certificate or degree and earn an average salary of $20,638.

“It does not take rocket science to come to the realization that if you send kids to college without preparation, they’re probably not going to be successful,” Lewis said.

“I will not celebrate the awarding of Kentucky high school diplomas to kids that we know are not well prepared to be successful,” he continued. “Rather than celebrate, we should all hang our heads in shame if we have anything to do with the continued reality that we hand high school diplomas to kids telling them to their face that they’re ready to go on when we know in our hearts that all we’ve really given them is a certificate of attendance.”

The new requirements have drawn scrutiny from groups like the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Kentucky School Boards Association, Kentucky Association of School Superintendents and the Kentucky Education Association. They had asked the board to delay Wednesday’s vote in order to gather additional feedback on the proposed changes.

Such groups have frustrated Lewis. He accused the Prichard Committee, KEA and the Jefferson County Teachers Association on Tuesday of either intentionally misleading people about research surrounding issues like exit exams or not having the capacity to understand that research or the proposed graduation requirements themselves. He also said the groups left out key information, such as the 30-day public comment period, in their communications.

Kerri Schelling, executive director of KSBA, said her group plans to “take full advantage” of the 30-day public comment period and encouraged other education groups to do the same.

“It is unfortunate that the efforts of KSBA and other education groups to raise legitimate concerns have been characterized by some as attempts to deliberately deceive the public,” Schelling said in a statement.

“We encourage Commissioner Lewis and the state Board of Education to take full advantage of the wealth of knowledge and experience of our teachers, administrators, superintendents and local school board members in moving toward solutions that meet the needs of all Kentucky students.”

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee, said she hopes stakeholder input sparks change in the graduation requirements passed by the state education board Wednesday.

“We brought the research to inform policymakers, as we have done for over three decades, and we’ve asked for a deeper conversation based on the research that we found,” she told reporters. “So what the board did today was not only not bring up that a delay had been asked for, but decided to move forward without the benefit of further conversation.”

One concern for Ramsey is that the new graduation standards will drive the state’s graduation rate down. The state’s four-year graduation rate was 90.3 percent last year, but just 60 percent of graduates were deemed transition ready.

“The research shows that those students who will be most affected are those who are disadvantaged currently, so they’re students from low-income homes, they’re often students of color, students of different ethnic backgrounds, English-language learners,” Ramsey said. “They are the ones that the system is currently not supporting at a high enough level.”

But Lewis cautioned against predicting how different student groups will fare under the new standards.

“We’re way too far ahead to make those types of guesses,” he told reporters. “As I said earlier today, anyone who makes a guess in terms of what our graduation rate will go to, what specific kids will be most impacted, those would be guesses.”

“What I can assure you of is if we do not raise the bar, we will continue to graduate kids of every student population you can think of that leave with a high school diploma but are inappropriately prepared to have success,” he added.

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