Correction to This Article
A March 27 article about D.C. schools' new graduation requirements misstated the number of history credits that Virginia students must earn to receive a standard high school diploma. Virginia high school students must take three history credits to graduate with a standard diploma.

District Toughens Graduation Policy

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Earning a D.C. high school diploma is going to become more challenging.

Superintendent Clifford B. Janey announced yesterday that the school system has adopted a new graduation policy that requires all students to take four years of math, science, social studies and English, an attempt to increase academic rigor and give a high school diploma more meaning.

The policy also says elementary and middle school students must master a new set of skills, known as "learning standards," before they move to the next grade. The old promotion policy did not tie student advancement to the mastery of grade-level material.

The graduation policy will begin with students who will be in ninth grade next school year and will apply to all high school students by 2010.

High school students take four years of English, three years of math and science and 3 1/2 years of social studies. In addition to mandating four years of study in each of those core subjects, the revised high school policy will require students to take more science labs and will reduce the number of elective classes.

Maryland requires four years of English and three years of social studies, math and science. Virginia students can earn a standard diploma by taking four years of English and history and three years of math and a laboratory science.

The District's new graduation policy matches those used by Texas and Alabama, which also require four years of courses in those four subjects. But experts noted that the District's emphasis on insisting that high school students take higher-level math and more science classes that have a lab component will make its policy one of the most rigorous in the nation.

"For an urban district to raise a standard to this level is notable," said Matthew Gandal, executive vice president at Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that tracks graduation requirements across the country. D.C. officials are "putting themselves in a position with some of the leading states in terms of raising the expectations. So that's a positive," he said.

The policy also applies to the 19,733 students enrolled in the city's 55 charter schools. D.C. Public Charter School Board spokeswoman Nona Mitchell Richardson said yesterday that its schools had set graduation requirements that exceeded the school system's old policy.

The promotion policy will be phased in for elementary and middle school students, requiring them to acquire a core set of skills in the areas of reading, math, science and social studies.

The administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), which is looking to take direct control of the schools, praised the new policy yesterday while noting that it should focus on how to improve learning in the classroom.

"An end to social promotion is long overdue," Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso said through a spokeswoman.

The requirements were approved by the school board last week and presented by Janey yesterday during a news conference at Strong John Thomson Elementary School in downtown Washington.

Lyndsay Pinkus of the Alliance for Excellent Education praised the move but said it takes more than a new set of rules to bring academic improvements.

Officials have to make certain "that what's being taught is more rigorous . . . and that teachers have what they need to teach that rigor, and that students have the basic supports to receive it," Pinkus said.

"If you're not doing all those things along with raising the requirements then that's not real education reform," she added.

The school system's old policy allowed students to take more elective courses, a practice that allowed some students to put off taking challenging courses. For example, some high school students could take Algebra I as late as their senior year. Under the revised policy, students must take that course as freshmen.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company