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Washington poised to ratchet up graduation standards

At the urging of major employers and state officials, the Washington State Board of Education is about to adopt tough new high school graduation requirements.

But students might not notice a difference.

That’s because the so-called Core 24 requirements would not take effect until the Legislature comes up with money to pay for them. Educators say the state already falls about $1 billion short of meeting its mandate to finance basic education.

One exception: The board next week is expected to adopt a required third math credit starting with the class of 2013. And that class will have to be at the level of Algebra II or above.

“That’s a huge change,” said Kathe Taylor, policy director for the Board of Education. “Two credits of math have been the requirement for 23 years, and it could be any math.”

Noncredit graduation requirements would not change under Core 24, named for the number of credits that would be required for graduation. Neither would Washington Assessment of Student Learning testing.

Every Washington school district has graduation requirements exceeding the 19 credits currently required by the state, Taylor said. Requirements in Eastern Washington districts range from 20 total credits in Inchelium to 30 in Nine Mile Falls, Freeman and Palouse.

But the mix of required courses are sometimes far different from the Core 24 requirements.

Spokane Public Schools requires 22 credits, including six electives and three years of math. If Core 24 were fully implemented, Spokane students would have to take a third science class and most also would need two years of a foreign language – already a common requirement for college admission.

Central Valley School District requires 23 credits, including eight electives. Under Core 24, the mix of required classes would have to include one more year each of English, science and the arts, an additional half-year of social studies and the foreign language classes that are now strongly encouraged.

And most districts – Spokane and West Valley are local exceptions – don’t require specific math classes.

School officials wonder where the extra certified math teachers will be found for the new algebra requirement. The Professional Educators Standards Board is studying that issue and will go to the Legislature with recommendations that could include incentives for becoming a math teacher, said Maureen Trantham, communications director for the nonprofit Partnership for Learning, which supports Core 24.

And educators say the state is going to have to come up with a lot more money if Core 24 is fully implemented. Right now, the state pays for five periods of instruction because that’s enough to fulfill 19 credits. Yet most districts – including Spokane – provide six.

With Core 24, “it would be necessary to fund that sixth period” because six periods over four years is exactly enough to meet the proposed new requirements, said Nancy Stowell, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools.

In addition, Stowell said, the state would need a plan for helping students who were falling short of credits. Summer school could become much more crowded and beyond the ability of districts and students’ families to fund.

“We already have an issue (statewide) with students being unable to graduate because they don’t have enough credits,” Stowell said.

The new standards would place “real burdens on small schools” and could have unintended consequences, said Boyd Keyser, principal of Cle Elum-Roslyn High School.

For instance, “the addition of art sounds great, we all love the arts,” Keyser told legislators late last month during a Spokane meeting of Washington school superintendents and principals. “But having two credits of art means our best arts students can’t take additional credits, because we have to make sure that all students get the required credits.”

Advocates of Core 24 contend that as things now stand, a kid could graduate unprepared for either college or the work force, unless he’s guided by knowledgeable adults. Or, as it’s stated in a Board of Education report, “current state requirements don’t prepare a student for anything.”

Core 24 “helps create equity,” said Trantham, of the Partnership for Learning.

That group last week bought ads in The Spokesman-Review and other newspapers noting that graduation standards haven’t changed since “the advent of the ‘brick’ mobile phone, Microsoft’s Windows 1.0, and the first appearance of compact disks” in 1985.

It’s time to do better, says the group, which was founded in 1994 by a lieutenant governor and a former Boeing CEO.

The state’s 2006 “Washington Learns” report also called for tougher requirements, and the Legislature in 2007 asked the Board of Education to review the graduation standards, paying particular attention to math.

Thirty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have stiffer graduation requirements than Washington, said Taylor. Idaho requires 23 credits and Oregon requires 24.

“It’s not like we’re trying to keep up with the Joneses but … families do move,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to have some sense of how we create an equal playing field” both with other states and among Washington districts.



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