The measure presented by District officials to the D.C. State School Board of Education on Wednesday night was simply a technical change, they said. A mere tweak. A bit of sandpapering.

In fact, it was an eleventh-hour scramble to fix a massive ambiguity in District high school graduation requirements that could have derailed the plans of hundreds of seniors. The problem was caught not by officials at DCPS or the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) but by high school watchdog Kathy Reilly, head of SHAPPE (Senior High School Alliance of Parents Principals and Educators).

It led to passage of an emergency rule by the board, along with some bewilderment about how the quest for more academic rigor in District high schools was overtaken by bureaucratic rigor mortis.

The issue dates to May 2007, when the old Board of Education, in the waning days before mayoral control stripped it of budget and managerial power, approved new academic standards covering students entering ninth grade that fall.

It required them to take at least two college-level or “career preparatory” courses, write a thesis as juniors or seniors, and complete “a culminating composition or project” that they would formally present before graduation.

The new standards were not intended to be “stand-alone” graduation requirements, but to ensure that students mastered certain skills as part of their regular course work, explained Jesse Bailey, director of policy and planning for State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley.

But Bailey said that the standards were included in a chart of graduation requirements. Even though no credits were specifically assigned to the standards, they appeared to be stand-alone requirements for a diploma. It has created confusion for that 2007-08 cohort of ninth-graders and their families as graduation approaches next month.

A change in the language, Bailey said, “we believe will accomplish the original intent of the rules.” OSSE’s proposed “technical clarification” would underscore that the junior or senior thesis and project requirement could be met within the regular 24 units of course work needed to complete high school. In other words, a student taking AP English literature would be able to use the course to meet both the college level unit requirement and one of the four English unit requirements.

The proposed change was greeted with considerable skepticism and some sharp questions from the board, which in its reconstituted form oversees broad policies covering public and public charter schools. One was, how did this all come so close to the wire? Graduation ceremonies begin June 10.

“Who’s responsible for us missing this?” asked board member Mark Jones (Ward 5)

Bailey, former education policy adviser to then-D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, said that with the intense focus on the 2007 mayoral control legislation, the new graduation requirements received little attention.

“The practical impact of this sequence of events is that the graduation standards were not uniformly articulated,” he said.

Translation: Constant turnover in senior management positions at OSSE and DCPS, along with OSSE’s treatment during the Fenty-Rhee era as a bureaucratic backwater, caused the ball to be dropped.

Board members were concerned by the peculiar double message that DCPS seemed to be sending. John Davis, instructional superintendent for high schools, said he was confident that the vast majority of seniors — even at academically struggling comprehensive high schools — had “met the spirit” of the thesis requirement without the change.

So if that’s the case, “why is it so important to make this change?” asked board Vice President Laura Slover (Ward 3).

Slover and other board members expressed doubts about the rigor with which the thesis rule was enforced, and said they were troubled by taking any action that could be seen as watering down graduation requirements.

But in the end — swayed in no small measure by testimony from a Woodrow Wilson High senior and the urging of student representatives Kevin Jackson Jr. of McKinley and Kirstin Jones of Benjamin Banneker high schools — the board decided that no seniors should be victimized by adult lapses in oversight. It reluctantly voted 6 to 3 to approve the change.

“My fear is that the action we took here tonight raises more questions than it answers,” said board President Ted Trabue (At Large). “I don’t leave here feeling very good.”