Editorial: Scale back credit requirement for high school diploma

By The Herald Editorial Board

For most high school students and their parents, Washington state’s graduation requirements for standardized tests and class credits can seem like a moving target.

For the classes of 2017 and 2018, for example, those students are expected to complete a minimum of 20 credits in high school, four in English and elective classes, three each in math and social studies, two each in science and health and fitness, and one each in arts and career and technical education.

Following a review of graduation standards and a perceived need to increase academic rigor that began more than a decade ago, the Legislature in 2014 passed new requirements that are to go into effect for the class of 2019, this year’s sophomores.

The credit requirement is scheduled to bump up to 24 for that class, adding one credit each for science and arts and two for a foreign language.

But lawmakers and others throughout the educational community wonder if they haven’t set the bar too high.

“When we jumped from 19 to 24 we overshot,” Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, told The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield last week. Ortiz-Self, a member of the House education committee, is a counselor for the Everett School District.

A House bill, HB 1509, would ease the graduation requirements before the 24-credit standard would go into effect for the class of 2019. Students would have to pass 21 credits; leaving the art and science credit requirement unchanged, reducing the English requirement to three credits, but maintaining the new two-credit requirement for foreign languages.

Critics of the legislation are concerned this will lower education standards and expectations for high school students. And they say the current law allows for a waiver of up to two credits, under certain circumstances, so that a student’s ability to graduate isn’t jeopardized.

But as school districts have begun to prepare for the change, they’re bumping up against the limits of the typical six-hour school day. In order to offer the additional classes to allow students to earn necessary credits, some districts are shifting or adding periods to class schedules, resulting in less instruction time per subject, said Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, at a education committee hearing earlier this month. Stonier works as an instructional coach at a Vancouver middle school and is a former middle school teacher.

What the 24-credit requirement could do, in effect, would be to limit the depth of what students learn in each subject by cutting into each period’s time to absorb and practice what they are being taught.

There’s also concern that, at a time when there’s a keen need in the state for students prepared for vocational careers and further technical training, the 24-credit standard is better suited for those headed for college and university. Jene Jones, with the Washington Association of Career and Technical Education, told lawmakers at the same hearing that students expected to meet the 24-credit requirement won’t have the flexibility to take vocational courses best suited to their needs. Moving to 21 credits would allow those students to better explore career opportunities.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern that the state Supreme Court will see the reduction in the credit requirement as a violation of its obligation under the McCleary mandate to fully provide for basic education. But others believe that the court will allow a change in the standard, as long as it isn’t a cost-cutting measure and is for educational purposes.

Because the 24-credit standard wouldn’t have gone into effect until the spring of 2019, there’s time now to adjust that standard without creating chaos for schools and students. Amending the standard now — in the interests of a school day that doesn’t cram in another subject and allows flexibility for those who would rather consider technical training than four years at a university — sounds like a true educational purpose.

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