Fewer credits may be required for graduation

OLYMPIA — Three years after deciding high school students must earn 24 credits to graduate, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers say they went too far.

They are pushing a bill to reduce the requirement to 21 credits. They succeeded in getting it passed out of the House Education Committee this week.

Under House Bill 1509, the change would occur with the class of 2019 which, under current law, is when the 24-credit mandate is to take effect.

Students are struggling to meet the mandate and fear failing one class will prevent them from graduating, supporters said. Current law is a barrier to students desiring to enter the workforce upon graduating rather than attend a four-year university, they said.

“When we jumped from 19 to 24 we overshot,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, a committee member and counselor in the Everett School District who backed the bill. Twenty-one credits, she said, feels like the right number.

Opponents said a retreat isn’t needed because existing law provides enough flexibility for students to earn a diploma and then continue on with career-oriented technical education or get right into a job.

“I think it sends a very concerning message that now that we see some students struggling to meet the standard, the way to resolve it is by relaxing the rule,” said Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, one of four Democrats on the education committee who did not support the bill.

They also worry how the state Supreme Court might respond. The state is under a court order in the McCleary case to fully fund basic education, a component of which is the 24-credit requirement. Justices might view a change in graduation standards as an attempt to get around some of the McCleary obligation, opponents said.

“I believe this will not impact that,” said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, the committee’s ranking minority member and a co-sponsor of the bill. “I think (the bill) means we will stand for all children.”

Today, to graduate from a public high school, students must earn 20 credits in specified subject areas plus attain certain marks on statewide tests.

Since 2006, the Legislature has been looking to make it more academically rigorous to graduate.

At that time, lawmakers directed the state Board of Education to re-evaluate the expectations of a diploma. Four years later, the board adopted the 24 credit Career- and College-Ready Graduation Requirements but those changes did not get implemented at the time.

In 2013, lawmakers included funding in the budget for the increased hours of instruction to ensure students could get the credits. But they did not approve putting the new rules into place. That came in 2014 with Senate Bill 6552, which passed the House 93-5 and then the Senate 45-2.

Under that law, the 24-credit requirement is in force starting with this year’s sophomores. School districts can get a waiver to delay implementation until 2021 and they also can waive up to two credits for students with “unusual circumstances.”

Under the proposed legislation, the credit requirements would be reduced by one each in English, science and arts. Students could substitute two credits of foreign language instruction for two credits of a “personalized pathway.” Plus the two-credit waiver option is retained.

Representatives of the Washington Association for Career and Technical Education and the Coalition to Protect Our Public Schools testified in support of the bill at a hearing in early February.

Leaders of the state Board of Education and the Association of Washington School Principals are among those opposing the bill.

Kelso High School Principal John Gummel called it “educationally corrosive” in a Feb. 13 letter to lawmakers. He wrote that at his school, and others around the state, significant and difficult changes were made to ensure students can meet the standard, and the bill would undercut those efforts.

“Lowering the bar for students does not support what is ‘best for kids.’ It supports ‘what is easiest for adults,’” he wrote. The bill “is wrong for education. It is wrong for our state, but most importantly, it is wrong for our children.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos

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