Colorado districts giving students more ways to prove they deserve a high school diploma

Students in several districts will still have to complete a certain number of high school classes to get their diplomas.

A high school graudation. (Jeremy Jenum/Flickr)
A high school graudation. (Jeremy Jenum/Flickr)

By Wesley Wright and Melanie AsmarChalkbeat 

School districts across Colorado are revising their high school graduation requirements to comply with new state guidelines that mandate students prove their knowledge in English and math through tests, projects or college-level courses.

But students in several districts will still have to complete a certain number of high school classes to get their diplomas. While the districts have adopted the new state guidelines, they haven’t abandoned their previous credit-hour requirements.

The guidelines are meant to provide a common set of expectations for earning a diploma in a state that until recently allowed each district to set its own criteria. They were prompted by education reform laws that aim to better prepare students for college and the workplace.

“It’s going away from just clocking in hours and going more towards seeing if a student is really learning the content,” said Carl Einhaus, the director of student affairs at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

But it wasn’t necessarily the state’s intent to persuade districts to scrap their seat-time requirements and move to an entirely competency-based system, said Misti Ruthven, the executive director of innovation and pathways for the Colorado Department of Education.

When the guidelines were adopted by the State Board of Education, they made it possible for a district to go that route if they wanted, she said. “However, the board didn’t signal that there was only one way to adopt graduation guidelines,” she added.

Students can demonstrate proficiency in English and math in a variety of ways. The state guidelines include a “menu” of options, including earning a 430 in English and a 460 in math on the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; earning a score of 2 or higher out of 5 on an Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

Districts can adopt any or all of the 12 menu options. They can also set their own cut scores. For example, a district could require students to get a 3 or higher on an AP exam to qualify.

While the state hasn’t set any deadlines for districts, the guidelines are set to go into effect starting with the class of 2021. Those students are in eighth grade this year.

Denver Public Schools approved new graduation criteria in May. Students will still be required to take four years each of English 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.

But they will also have to demonstrate “college and career readiness” in English and math in one of 11 ways, including earning a C or better in a concurrent enrollment class.

Similarly, Aurora Public Schools will continue to require students to earn 22 credits to graduate, according to a policy adopted in June, including four credits each of math and English, three credits each of science and social studies, one world language credit and seven elective credits.

Like in Denver, students must also show proficiency in English and math in one of 11 ways.

Cherry Creek approved its changes in June as well, adopting the entire state menu.

“We’ll give (students) every possible way to do this,” said Associate Superintendent Scott Siegfried.

Siegfried noted that many Cherry Creek students already meet the competency requirements. But for high schoolers who are behind, he said the guidelines offer more leeway since those students can prove their competence in multiple ways.

“There are some students who develop at a different pace,” he said. “If they didn’t have a diploma, it could have held them back.”

Colorado Springs District 11, which approved its new graduation requirements in April, will allow students to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of ways — but not a capstone project.

“We did some research, looked at maybe ten states,” said John Keane, director of K-12 schools for the district. “We didn’t really think they actually drew out how proficient a student was. Also, the intensity required from our staff isn’t something we can tackle right now.”

Meanwhile, that’s where the small, rural Dolores County School District will put its focus. The district, located less than 10 miles from the Utah border, serves fewer than 300 students.

“Most, if not all, our emphasis will be on capstone projects through project-based learning, internships and mentorships,” said Superintendent Bruce Hankins.

“We just are too small to have resources to meet most of the other guidelines,” he added, “and strongly oppose utilizing a cut score or test to determine high school graduation.”

Elliott Asp, who as Colorado’s interim education commissioner played a key role in developing the new guidelines, said he is encouraged by districts adopting the entire menu of options provided by the state, and looking beyond test scores.

“It provides as many opportunities for kids to find their way through as possible, but still have some reasonable assurance that students have still have those knowledge skills that will help them master their lives once they leave high school,” said Asp, now a senior fellow with the education nonprofit Achieve, which helped develop the Common Core State Standards.

Several districts — including Boulder Valley, Poudre, Englewood, Adams 12 Five Star, Douglas County and Jefferson County — are still working to revise their requirements, according to representatives from those districts.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.