Kentucky shouldn’t pass new high school graduation requirements until it addresses concerns of teachers and parents, several groups said this week.
“I think it’s important that we ask for student voice, for educator voice, in creating something we can sustain,” said Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association. The current proposal could have unintended consequences for the state’s most vulnerable students, she said.
As reported by the Courier Journal of Louisville, the 11-member Kentucky Board of Education was slated to vote today (Wednesday) on changes to the state’s minimum graduation requirements.
Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who is recommending the new requirements, has said the changes would give students more flexibility to pursue their career interests and ensure that none graduate without basic reading and math skills.
Lewis said the changes would prevent Kentucky students from earning a diploma without actually being ready for college or a career — a longstanding problem for the state.
Several groups told the Courier Journal this week that they supported the move to make Kentucky diplomas more meaningful. But they said the state should take more time to analyze the proposal and its possible effects on students.
“We agree with the goal of improving college and career readiness, but we believe the stakes should be on schools through the accountability system, not on individual students,” said Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.
A coalition including the Prichard Committee, a statewide public education advocacy group, and the Louisville Urban League released a statement this week calling for the state board to delay its vote.
Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director for the Prichard Committee, said there is a deal of concern about the 10th-grade exams, which students would need to pass in order to graduate. She pointed to research, including a 2014 report from New America, a Washington, D.C.,-based think tank, that show such exams haven’t lifted student achievement and have had a negative impact on disadvantaged students.
“Without resources and guidance to improve instruction, as well as improved climate and culture in our schools, students will ultimately bear the burden of these high-stakes requirements,” Blom Ramsey said. “The impact will be disproportionate, with students of color and from low-income homes impacted the most.”
In a statement Monday afternoon, Lewis said many “stakeholder and stakeholder groups” have participated in the development of the proposal. He also noted that, should the proposal pass, it will enter a 30-day public comment period and that the board could make revisions based on those comments, “if deemed necessary.”
Lewis also lashed out at the Prichard Committee, saying the group’s stance was “an effort to mislead and create panic.”
“The Prichard Committee and the coalition have stretched the findings of the research literature in order to support their position, have not been accurate in their likening of our proposal to ‘exit examinations’ in other states, and have asked the Kentucky Board of Education to address concerns that Kentucky statute clearly states must be addressed at the district and school levels,” Lewis said. “Additionally, the coalition is discounting the reality that we must set a higher bar that ensures students receive more than just a certificate of attendance when they graduate.”
In response, Blom Ramsey said, “There is no doubt, too many Kentucky students are graduating without a meaningful high school diploma.” But she said the proposal “lacks clarity in crucial areas.”
“The Prichard Committee and our partners want to ensure Kentucky’s resources and focus are directed toward policies and practices that have the greatest likelihood of improving the outcomes of each and every student,” she said.
Other groups, including the Kentucky School Boards Association, called for the state board to delay its vote.
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“We do not believe that the interim commissioner and department have gathered the necessary input on this proposal from educators, parents and the community at large,” KSBA Executive Director Kerri Schelling said.
She urged the state against “repeating mistakes of the past.”
“The very same students we are trying to better serve with more meaningful diplomas will be the same students left with no diplomas if we predicate graduation on passing high-stakes exams,” Schelling said.
Davonna Lewis, a school board member in Russellville, said the exit exam requirement would force schools to focus too much on standardized testing and stifle “innovative” teaching.
“While action may be required, action for the sake of action is not always the best answer,” she said. “Thoughtful action will produce the best results.”
Ryan Davis, a math teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools, said he also foresees problems for disadvantaged students should the state board fail to delay its vote.
For example, Davis said he is concerned about the lack of detail in the state’s plan for dropping Algebra II as a required course.
Schools with high-performing students and involved parents will likely continue offering enough sections of the course to ensure all students have a seat. But at schools with less advantaged students, that may not be the case, Davis said, with schools only offering a few sections or dropping the course altogether. Doors of opportunity for those students would close as a result, he said.
“We know that, historically, that when you offer different pathways, what’s happened is particularly low-income and minority students get tracked onto pathways that lead to lowerincome opportunities at the end of the day,” said Davis, who chairs the Committee for Mathematics Achievement, a statewide policy advisory group.
Davis said his committee has not taken a stance on dropping Algebra II as a requirement. But it hopes the state will take time to put more “thought and input” into its plan, he said.
Matt Thompson, superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, said he and district leaders across the state agree that Kentucky must “raise the bar of expectations” for its high school graduates.
But he cautioned the state to not rush the process.
“I think it would be much better to spend the time now to get this right instead of going a year or two and seeing that we missed the mark,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that his district and many others — including JCPS, with its Backpack of Success Skills — are developing graduate profiles to address student skill gaps. The state’s proposal for new graduation requirements could lead to drastic changes for schools, which first need to be carefully considered, he said.
“The caution is not a ‘Hey, we need to take steps back and lower expectations for kids.’ Not at all,” Thompson said. “It’s that, when we raise expectations, to make sure the system supports kids at the same time.”