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The Rules of High School are Changing

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #76, 2007.

Learn what you need to know about new graduation requirements and more.
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Mary Pride


Big changes are coming in the world of high-school education and graduation requirements. Once again, Practical Homeschooling is glad to bring you the scoop on important news you need to know, but won't automatically find out by surfing the Net.

  • High-school graduation requirements are changing all over this country.

  • "Tracking" is making a comeback, and some states now issue a variety of diplomas.

  • There is now one type of course your student must take in order to receive top consideration at top colleges. Do you know what it is?

  • Very powerful people are now working to transform "dual credit" from an outlet for brainy high-school juniors and seniors to an alternative graduation route for at-risk students.

    Change is coming, thick and fast. Now, here's what you need to know to get ready for it.

New Graduation Requirements

If you think you know what courses your student must complete in order to qualify for high-school graduation in your state, think again.

Even if you have been homeschooling for decades, you can't count on what you "used to know" about high school any more... because graduation requirements are changing all over.

Requirements already vary by state. As a June 22, 2006, Education Week article reported:

State requirements range from a low of 13 total credits in California, Wisconsin, and Wyoming to a high of 24 total credits in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Six states-Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania-leave most decisions about course-credit requirements up to local school districts. Two others-Nebraska and North Dakota-specify the total number of course credits required, but do not define expectations for credits in particular subjects.

But state requirements are changing even as you read this. In Missouri, for example, for the past 20 years only 22 credits were required to graduate. For the graduating class of 2010, this will rise to 24 credits. In addition, the new standards require a half-unit course in personal finance and a half-unit course in health education, according to an October 2005 article posted on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website. Plus, one additional unit (school year) of English, math, and social science are now required.

As an April 4 Education Week article explained:

States have gradually been increasing mandates for how much math and science high school students have to take to earn a traditional diploma. Several states are also phasing in tougher graduation requirements in each subject...

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate that students take a minimum of three years of math in high school, according to the ECS [Education Commission of the States]. While only two states, Alabama and South Carolina, require four years of math, 10 others are phasing in such a requirement.

Twenty states require at least three years of science in high school. One, Alabama, requires four years of study in that subject. Two others, Mississippi and Texas, are phasing in that mandate, the ECS says.

The push for increased math and science standards has become so strong that Education Week found it worth publishing a story when Colorado chose not to increase high-school requirements in those areas.

It's important to know about changes in graduation requirements well before they kick in. Adjusting your graduation plans to add an extra year of this and an extra semester of that is a lot easier if you start working on it in sophomore or junior year.

Many of you reading this are state group leaders and local support group leaders. If you don't already have a procedure like this in place, I urge you to make it your annual mission to check your state's policies about high-school graduation (available on the state department of education website), and put any changes on the home page of your group's website.

For those of you who aren't group leaders, just go to your favorite search engine and type in your state's name followed by the phrase "department of education." That should bring up the site. If you can't rapidly locate the rules about graduation, try typing your state name followed by the phrase "high school graduation requirements" (put it inside quote marks, just like that), and see what comes up. One of the first search results ought to lead you to the information. Again, be sure to check this yearly, as legislatures face increasing pressure to increase or change graduation requirements.

New Diplomas

According to the press release that accompanies Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation Policy and Rates,

States differ considerably in the variety of credentials they offer to students who successfully complete a high school program. While 17 states offer only a single credential-a standard high school diploma-six have multiple standard-diploma options. Also, 24 states offer students exceeding the standard requirements special recognition, such as an honors diploma. In 26 states, students not meeting all the requirements for a standard diploma may receive an alternative credential, such as a certificate of attendance.

This trend is something to watch, especially if you want your children to attend a top-tier college. Your students will be competing against kids with honors diplomas and college-prep diplomas. Meeting state graduation requirements for a regular diploma might not be enough.

The AP Land Rush

Practical Homeschooling has been pointing out the advantages of taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams for over a decade. What once was a shiny gold star on your student's transcript now is practically becoming a graduation requirement-at least, if you're aiming for big scholarships or admission to a top university.

Ever since college admissions officials came to believe that completing at least one AP course was a strong predictor of college success, more and more students have been taking AP courses. In 2006 alone, the number of students taking an AP exam rose 10 percent.

Admissions officials at top schools are likely to pass over a student who doesn't have at least two AP courses listed on his or her transcript-and more is better, starting in junior year or earlier.

Dual Credit for All?

One trend I personally am watching closely is the "early college high school" scheme, now promoted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As a November 6, 2006, Washington Post article reported, "These schools put secondary students on college campuses, often on track to earn two-year associate's degrees along with their high school diplomas at no cost. The goal is to give students more challenging, career-oriented classes, with support when needed, in an effort to keep them in school."

What's different about this is that, instead of the top students, these programs are meant for at-risk youths and dropouts.

I agree absolutely with Bard College president Leon Botstein, who was quoted in the article as saying, "High school is an outmoded, obsolete structure. It is inadequate to deal with young adults who grow up in our society with an immense amount of freedom they don't know how to handle." The first two years of college pretty much repeat the last two years of high school, so academically it's hard to see why those high-school years are even needed. And don't even get me started on the toxic high-school social environment of cliques and partying!

I also agree that the cachet of taking college courses-and making serious progress towards a college diploma-has a way of revitalizing burned-out and indifferent high-school students. That is why my own children have been taking "dual credit" courses for years-attending community college classes while still juniors and seniors in high school. Dual credit has also enabled us to provide advanced science courses, with labs, and other courses that we lack the time and resources for at home.

These community-college courses beat AP courses hollow, in my estimation. But if "dual credit" becomes perceived as "dropout retention," this could have serious consequences for homeschool kids who take college courses while in high school.

Aside from college courses, what are the best high-school courses to take?

The American Diploma Project (ADP) reported in 2005 that taking math through Algebra II in high school, along with four years of grade-level (or above) English courses, is a high predictor for career success in white-collar and/or professional jobs.

The ADP report is important, because states everywhere are enacting its recommendations. What's galvanizing all this change is (1) graduation rates are included in the No Child Left Behind formula for whether schools are performing adequately (and schools that fail stand to lose a lot), and (2) major foundations are getting into the high-school reform biz. Big business and big government both are pushing for change.

Keep reading Practical Homeschooling and you'll be ready!

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