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Part 2: What should a Kansas high school diploma mean?

Posted Date: 07/06/2021

Part 2: What should a Kansas high school diploma mean?

Kansas graduation requirements

The Kansas State Board of Education has appointed a Task Force to study what should be required for students to graduate from high school. The question is whether the state should continue to use a system that mostly looks at how much time a student spends in subject area classes, what subjects should be required, and whether to consider different ways to measure whether students have met state expectations. 

As noted in a previous post, educational attainment is increasing in both Kansas and the nation and is at all-time high levels for adults. Given these trends, why has the State Board called for a study of graduation requirements?

To begin with, there are some gaps between the current state requirements for high school graduation and other definitions Kansas has set for successful preparation for life, post-secondary education and careers.

In 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in the Gannon school finance case that constitutional “suitable” funding must be adequate to allow students to achieve seven “capacities” that define what students should be able to do upon leaving the public school system. Called the “Rose” capacities after a lawsuit in the state of Kentucky in the 1990’s, the Kansas Legislature subsequently adopted these seven capacities as state education goals.

Two years later, following an extensive round of community and business leader discussion, the State Board of Education adopted a definition of a successful high school graduate. When comparing these two sets of expectations with actual graduation requirements, there is considerable overlap but far from complete alignment.

For example, the first Rose capacity is “Sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization” which aligns with a requirement of four years of English language arts.

The second and third Rose capacities are “Sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable the students to make informed choices” and “Sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the students to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation.” These match requirements for three units of history and government, which shall include world history; United States history; United States government, including the Constitution of the United States; and concepts of economics and geography.

The next two capacities –“Sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness” and “Sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage,” align with course requirements for one unit of physical education, which shall include health and which may include safety, first aid, or physiology; and one unit of fine arts, which may include art, music, dance, theatre, forensics, and other similar studies selected by a local board of education.

However, the Rose capacities do not even mention math and science, which account for six required units for graduation. And they do not define whether a given number of “units” of subjects actually prepare students “sufficiently.”

The State Board’s definition of a successful graduate does not mention courses or units at all. Instead, it says a graduate should have things that might also be called “capacities” - academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills, and civic engagement.

The courses required for graduation are basically academic. They may include “cognitive preparation”, but it is not defined or measured. Neither are “technical skills” unless a student takes career technical education courses. There is nothing to ensure that employability skills – also not defined – be included in required courses. Finally, the study of history and government does not mean a student is prepared for civic engagement.

Moving beyond specific courses, the final two Rose capacities address general student readiness – “Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently” and “Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.” This implies students should be able to get a job of their choice, either directly upon high graduation; or that they have the skills to continue in postsecondary education if required for that job.

Likewise, the State Board definition says a graduate should be able to be successful in postsecondary education, in the attainment of an industry recognized certification, or in the workforce without the need for remediation (emphasis added). This means a student should be able to go to college or earn an industry recognized certificate or go directly into the workforce without the need for remedial work by the college or employer.

The required graduation units do not address these expectations. Basically, they require that a teacher decides that a student has “passed” his or her course of study in a particular subject. Despite the fact that more students are graduating, more are taking prep courses or actual college courses, and more are taking CTE courses, there remain several concerns.

First, Kansas colleges end up placing some high school graduates in remedial or development courses. That appears to be primarily because the courses required to graduate do not have to be college prep level if students choose other courses. Students can take non-college prep-type courses in English, math and science and still meet the units required. Fewer than 10 percent of students recently out of high school require remedial courses at state universities, where students have usually been expected to complete college prep courses (with exemptions), but about 30 percent of students require remedial courses in community colleges, which do not.

Second, employees generally report that their biggest concerns about high school graduates is NOT a lack of academic or cognitive or technical skills, but instead a lack of employment skills or behavioral skills. Colleges and parents often say the same thing. (In fact, employers say the same thing about college graduates.)

Yet these skills are not explicitly contained in high school graduation requirements at all. While educators sometimes say these skills are usually taught through extracurricular activities, such activities by definition are not required for all students or even consistently measured.

The biggest concern does not seem to be that students are missing basic skills, but that many do not know how to apply those skills.

Third, despite progress in educational attainment, there remain large differences among groups of students. Students from low-income families, some minority groups, students with disabilities and other factors tend to lag 10 points behind their peers in graduation rates, and even farther behind in college completion. Because education is now so closely tied to economic status, it becomes more difficult for these groups to reach equal economic and social footing with others.

These are reasons why Kansas is taking a close look at graduation requirements. Future posts will explore options used in other states and other ideas to change expectations and measures for completing high school.