Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

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Testimony to ARRS: A Meaningful High School Diploma for All

Kentucky must develop a stronger high school experience that better prepares all students with the knowledge and skills they need for postsecondary success and employment. The state’s high school graduation requirements are an important foundation of expectation for what we provide to all students across the state – and for what the Department of Education provides by way of supports and guidance.   

On February 11, I provided testimony to the Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee (ARRS) on the pending high school graduation requirement regulation as proposed and approved by the Kentucky Board of Education. The regulation now moves to the House Education Committee for a final hearing before implementation begins 30 days following. 

It’s our position that the proposed requirements are lacking in their promise to significantly increase student outcomes and to provide a more meaningful diploma that truly prepares all students to compete in the economy of the future. If the regulation is implemented across the state, we will need to be mindful that the requirements are far short of a meaningful high school diploma. Local districts will need to keep their focus on providing rich and rigorous learning environments that help every student achieve their potential and parents will need to be knowledgeable about the opportunities they want for their student to be successful long-term. 

Regardless of final passage and implementation of the regulation, we know many students across the state need additional supports to achieve at higher levels and we’ll need local districts to ensure that happens – and for the General Assembly to provide the resources for local districts to build this capacity. Our school districts will also need the support of their local and the state business community to develop high-quality career pathways that support deep student learning and exposure to the opportunities that await our young people after high school.  

A meaningful high school diploma that prepares each Kentucky student for success – filling the high-quality jobs or today and creating the jobs of the future that spur Kentucky’s economy forward – is our goal. 

Below is my testimony to the Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee:

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Chairman West and Chairman Hale, thank you for the opportunity to speak today regarding the proposed changes to Kentucky’s minimum high school graduation requirements. My name is Brigitte Blom Ramsey, Executive Director for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

The issue of a more meaningful high school diploma could not be more critical given the changing nature of our economy and the fact that the high school diploma is the gateway to postsecondary success and sustainable employability.

As longstanding advocates of improving the quality of education and advancing the educational attainment of Kentucky’s citizens, we agree with the Kentucky Board of Education’s assessment that Kentucky is graduating too many young people without adequate skills necessary for their future success.

In this light, we believe the Board of Education’s proposal is well-intended – to ensure more students are adequately prepared for transition to work and postsecondary education.

However, several components raise concerns, namely: exit exam requirements in reading and mathematics, requiring students to meet graduation qualifiers, and the removal of Algebra II as a curriculum requirement.

Regarding Exit Exams:

While the goal of exit exams seems simple, a high school diploma that is evidence of basic mastery and successful preparation for postsecondary success, the research available, over 30 years, and the experience of other states indicates the actual outcomes are more complicated.

An analysis conducted by the University of Texas in 2010 summarized the findings of 46 previous academic studies on the effects of exit exams on student achievement, high school graduation, and postsecondary success. The research found little to suggest that either minimum-competency exams or more rigorous standards-based exit exams positively impacted any of the studied outcomes. 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.”

In other words, research documents no significant increase in student performance and no increase in postsecondary success.
Recognizing this research, states are shifting away from this type of policy. According to a 2016 report from the Education Commission of the States – for the graduating class of 2017 – only 15 states required students to pass exit exams to graduate from high school. Moreover, since 2011, 11 states have dropped exit exam requirements – including, our neighbor, Tennessee.
The fact of the matter is, Kentucky already knows which students are behind entering high school as evidenced by our 8th grade KPREP exam. Thus, the problem is not diagnostic, we know which students need more support. Instead, schools need strategies that increase learning – and minimum competency exams have simply not been proven to do that.

Regarding Transition Qualifiers:

The original proposal required students to meet transition readiness requirements in order to graduate. The Board made amendments to this provision changing this to “graduation qualifiers”, a slightly different list than transition readiness indicators in the accountability model. The amended proposal now means there are two sets of “transition ready” indicators – one as part of the accountability model and a different one for student graduation requirements.

In either case, the accountability model places the responsibility on the school to provide student access to the necessary opportunities to achieve transition readiness. Placing this same responsibility on students is duplicative, and also raises potential equity questions. All students across the state may not have the same access to high-quality transition readiness opportunities and many school districts will need additional support to ensure they have offerings necessary. Absent these supports, and in the presence of this regulation, students could be tracked into low-quality pathways.

Regarding Algebra II:

We are concerned with the removal of Algebra II as a foundational requirement, ensuring all students have access to high-level math opportunities. The state’s commitment to developing a highly skilled workforce for the future necessitates students take high-level math.

Research indicates students who take advanced mathematics courses in high school are more likely to enroll in college, are more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree, have greater labor market returns and higher job satisfaction.
One could argue that to increase successful transitions to postsecondary, Kentucky should actually require higher levels of math – not lower.

All-in-all, Kentucky vests significant responsibility in an appointed body of citizens to the Kentucky Board of Education. The weight of this responsibility requires thorough research and analysis of proposals for assurance that they will serve to move our state system of public education and Kentucky’s students forward.

Based on a review of available research and because of the significant impact the proposed changes would have on Kentucky’s students and schools, we recommended in November that the Board of Education table the proposed amendments to 704 KAR 3:305. Further study of this issue is still warranted, including hearing from the experience in other states, to ensure policymakers and stakeholders fully understand the costs and benefits of various approaches – including the opportunity cost to not focusing on what all students need to truly be ready to compete in the economy of the future.
Moreover, this is an important enough decision, which shifts Kentucky’s long-standing philosophy of school and district accountability to high stakes accountability on students, with far-reaching implications for our students and our state, that consideration should be given as to whether such a decision requires action by the Kentucky General Assembly.

In the meantime, the effort and resources of our schools should be focused on implementing the new accountability model established in Senate Bill 1 of 2017 and ensuring all Kentucky students have what we know works:

  • High expectations through rigorous course work and adequate supports,
  • Greater access to early postsecondary opportunities, including relevant career pathways, and
  • A highly-qualified teacher in every classroom, every year.

Thank you for your consideration of our comments today.

Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.