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Washington State Lawmakers OK Increase in Graduation Requirements

By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

The Washington state legislature has approved a measure that would require more academic attention to science, foreign languages, and the arts before students graduate from high school. The measure increases the overall credit requirement to graduate from 20 to 24, but also provides more leeway in what courses may count for both math and science credit, with an eye toward recognizing courses focused on career and technical education.

High school students would have to earn two foreign-language credits, two arts credits, and three in science, under the plan approved last week by the Washington Senate (and recently by the House). Currently, the state requires no foreign-language credits, one arts credit, and two science credits.)

The bill is currently under review by the governor's office. A final decision by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee on whether to sign the bills is likely over the next week, an official with the governor's office said.

The main goal of the legislation is to "align better the high school diploma with whatever the next steps for students will be," said Sarah Lane, the communications manager for the Washington State Board of Education, in an interview with Education Week. "Given the economy, [our students] are not going to be able to make a living wage with just a high school diploma."

The new credit requirements are intended to better prepare students for continued education, whether that is a four-year college or continued technical education, she added.

In addition to the extra requirements in science, the arts, and world languages, the legislation would provide more flexibility in what classes can count toward math and science credits, to accommodate students in career and technical education programs.

The legislation would also change a state mandate for high schools on the length of the academic year that was to go into effect next school year. Instead of implementing the plans for a mandatory minimum of 1080 hours in the school year, the new legislation would allow districts to average the total hours across all grades, which must equal at least 1,027 per year. Districts have said the planned mandate would only have added a few minutes onto each school day and would not have achieved the intended learning ends. 

The legislature has allocated $95.4 million for districts to implement these changes to graduation requirements. It also allows districts to request a two-year waiver. The previous mandate increasing class time was enacted in 2009 but then pushed back by the legislature in 2011. With this new legislation and the possibility of waivers, this pushes back learning time changes in the state even further.

Lane said, though, that she does not believe every district will seek a waiver, since many districts already require their students to take 24 credits.

"The legislature put in the waiver of up to two years to make sure that all districts have enough time to implement these new changes," she said. "We're not just talking about taking four more credits. They'll need to have more classes, they'll need to have rooms for these classes and have teachers. Schools that only require 20 credits will have more work to do to get ready."

Lawmakers in both chambers also approved a separate measure to create an Expanded Learning Opportunities Council, which will look at developing a pilot program for an extended school year.

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