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Colorado Expands Students' Options for Earning High School Diplomas

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After years of allowing school districts to set their own high school graduation requirements, Colorado has established its first set of statewide diploma expectations. But it's not a one-size-fits-all system; it allows students to pick from a menu of ways to prove they're ready to graduate.

Colorado districts are using the 2016-17 school year to get ready for the new system. When this year's 8th graders enter high school in fall 2017, they'll be the first Colorado graduating class that must demonstrate mastery of English and math in order to graduate, according to the state department of education's website. 

Currently, the only statewide requirement Colorado students have to complete to graduate from high school—aside from a specified number of seat-time hours—is one high school civics course.

The central piece of Colorado's plan is a menu of 12 options, or ways of demonstrating career or college readiness in math and English/language arts. Districts can decide to adopt some or all those options, and then students select from among the choices their district offers. 

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Some of the options involve reaching certain cutoff scores on tests, but districts may set higher cutoff scores on those tests if they wish.

(You'll notice, by the way, that scoring "proficient" on Colorado's statewide standardized test, PARCC, which is given in grades 3-9 there, isn't one of the options, but reaching a certain score on the ACT, which is required statewide, is.)

The new guidelines were developed over an eight-year period of study and public discussion. Districts are working out various approaches as they plan to put the new guidelines in place next year. Some are eliminating seat-time requirements and basing graduation only on subject-matter competency, while others are retaining a blend of subject-matter mastery and seat-time minimums, according to Chalkbeat.

The Denver school system has already designed its graduation requirements, Chalkbeat reports. It will require students to take four years each of English/language arts and math, three years each of science and social studies, one year each of physical education and art or career and technical education, and eight electives. The district adopted 11 of the state's 12 menu options, so students will choose from among those 11 methods to show they're college- or career-ready in math and English/language arts.

Colorado Springs District 11 adopted requirements that give students various ways to demonstrate their proficiency, but not through a capstone project, one of the state's 12 options. John Keane, the director of K-12 schools in that district, told Chalkbeat that district officials examined the use of such projects in other states and decided that they didn't truly show students' proficiency. Using capstone projects would also be a heavier lift than district staff could manage now, he said.

The Dolores County school district, on the other hand, chose to emphasize capstone projects, through project-based learning, its superintendent told Chalkbeat.


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