Many in the Beehive State were surprised on Nov. 27 when the U.S. Department of Education released statistics that show Utah ranks 32nd in overall high school graduation rates.
One simple change by the Utah Legislature could dramatically improve graduation rates and reduce education costs.
Lawmakers should pass a bill that requires school districts to award a diploma to any student who meets state graduation requirements. Currently, many school districts impose graduation standards that are much stricter than those mandated by the Utah Department of Education. In other words, the low graduation rate is largely a self-inflicted wound.
The state requires students to complete 24 credits of coursework to graduate from high school. Many school districts, however, require up to 28 credits for graduation. While that might not seem like a big difference, it amounts to an extra half year of classes.
The 24 credits required by the state include:
— Four credits of English
— Three credits of math, including one credit of Algebra 1, one of geometry, and one of advanced, applied, or supplemental math
— Three credits of science, including two from earth systems, biology, chemistry or physics, and one from the foundation courses, or the applied or advanced science core list
— Two-and-a-half credits of social studies, including one of U.S. history, one-half of geography, one-half of world civilization, and one-half of U.S. government and citizenship
— Three-and-a-half credits of directed coursework, including one-and-a-half credits of fine arts, one CTE credit, one-half credit of computer technology and one-half of general financial literacy
— Two credits of physical education and health
— Six elective credits
It certainly seems like a comprehensive list.
Allowing districts to set stricter graduation rules is unfair to Utah’s students. The current situation means that students in some districts fail to graduate even though they complete the same coursework as students who graduate in a different district that sticks with the state requirements.
Districts justify the requirement for additional credits by arguing the extra courses ensure students receive a better education and are more prepared for college. Districts should provide the supporting data and a detailed analysis of how much those additional classes cost and how student scores and graduation rates improve as a result of requiring those extra hours.
The proposal to award a diploma to any student who meets the state requirements does not dumb down graduation to make it easier. Districts would not need to make any changes to curriculum and students would be free to complete more than the required 24 hours of coursework. But it would be at a student’s discretion and not that of the school district.
Most Utah high school graduates that continue their higher education will do so at a Utah college or university. Very few will go to Ivy League schools, Stanford, or similar academically rigorous institutions. Students who complete the courses required by the state and who excel, are still qualified to attend those schools. Beyond grades, it is what those students do outside the classroom and their personal commitment that determines whether or not they will be accepted and succeed at any institution of higher learning.
Consider a hypothetical example:
Student X graduates from a Utah high school that requires 24 credits. He plans to attend college and takes appropriate coursework. He graduates with a 3.8 GPA. He scores 25 on the ACT test. During school he competed in tennis and was a member of the jazz band. He was class secretary his junior year.
Student Z graduates from a Utah high school requiring 28 credits. He takes the most challenging classes available. He finishes with a 3.4 GPA. He gets a 29 ACT score. He earned his Eagle Scout award.
Both students apply to the University of Utah. Both will likely be accepted. Which one will be more successful in college or after college? It is impossible to predict! The traits that will ultimately define their future success will not be determined by those additional four elective credits in high school.
In many cases, those extra classes might actually hurt a student’s performance. Over four years, those extra credits mean additional class work and homework. Instead of being able to concentrate on core classes, a student’s efforts and time are more divided. If a student gets a poor grade in an elective class, it still has a negative impact on his overall grade point average.
Requiring credits that exceed the state requirement increases costs in several ways. Those additional four credits amount to an extra half year of classes. Extra teachers, classrooms and materials are all obvious costs. There are also less obvious expenses.
In many districts requiring 28 credits, a student who opts to take released time LDS Seminary can never have an open class period in his schedule during all four years. That means no study time during a school day. All assigned work must be completed outside of school hours. That creates a stressful situation if the student is also trying to participate in extracurricular events like sports, music, drama, or even holding a part-time after-school-job. In many cases, it leaves very little time for homework or study. The end result is that the student doesn’t do as well academically.
Here is where a less obvious extra cost comes in: What if that harried student who has a full day of classes followed by hours of practice for a school play ends up failing English one semester? The state requires four credits of English to graduate and after the failure the student will be a semester short. He will not graduate unless he makes up the deficit credit. He has no opening in his schedule, so he must find a way to make up that English credit after school, on weekends, or during the summer. And the district must provide a way to facilitate that student’s need.
This is not an unusual situation. It happens to thousands of students each year. As a result, districts have the expense of special make-up programs, including the costs of materials, teachers, classrooms, and in some cases, entire schools. It would be difficult to calculate the total cost statewide because it varies from district to district. But it could easily be many millions of dollars. All this occurs because some districts choose to exceed the state education requirement of 24 credits.
Worst of all, many students who fail a class or two simply give up trying to graduate because it can be so cumbersome to make up the lost credit.
Utah’s abysmal graduation rate is obviously a problem that needs addressing. Granting a diploma to any student who completes state graduation requirements would be a good first step.