As D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson embarks on a plan to “rethink high schools” and improve graduation rates in 2015, she is pushing for new regulations that would move District schools away from a century-old measure of academic progress: seat time.
Alternative paths would allow students to get a diploma faster or, in some cases, without having to spend time in a traditional high school.
“Right now we can only give credit for the time you sit in a classroom,” Henderson said. “That is insane.”
Since she took over the leadership of D.C. schools, she has said it’s been her “huge priority” to create more flexible ways to earn high school credit and obtain a diploma, a goal shared by many charter school leaders.
Four years later, and with weeks left before a new mayor takes office, the D.C. State Board of Education is considering a proposal that would grant the chancellor’s wish.
The proposed regulations by the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) would remove the standard “Carnegie unit” — 120 hours of instruction, representing an hour a day, five days a week, for 24 weeks — upon which high school credit is based.
Instead, starting next school year, students would have multiple ways to earn credit, including passing a state-approved test or participating in a “course equivalent,” such as an internship, community-service project, portfolio or performance that can be tied to the academic standards. Another proposal would create a “state diploma” that would go to students who pass the GED any time after January 2014.
The revamped regulations come as the city is focusing new attention on improving graduation rates, which are among the lowest in the nation . Four in 10 high school freshmen in the District do not earn a diploma in four years. The result: More than 50,000 adults in the city are high school dropouts with diminished prospects to earn a living wage. At least 7,500 dropouts are between the ages of 16 and 24, officials say.
Schools are searching for ways to reengage them and offer accelerated programs so that coming back does not mean a full-time, multi-year commitment.
Sonja Santelises, vice president for K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, said alternative paths offer the potential to motivate students to stay in school through more hands-on experiences. But she cautioned that greater flexibility can also yield greater inequality.
“In the name of giving kids something different, we have often given them something less,” she said, recalling her days working in Baltimore’s schools, where she saw high school students earning credit through rudimentary poster-board presentations. “Then, all we are going to do is exacerbate the gaps that many of us are trying to address.”
Forty states already have policies that permit districts to experiment with the concept known as competency-based learning. Sometimes called outcome- or performance-based learning, the approach ties credit and course advancement directly to students’ understanding of skills regardless of their time in a classroom.
The trend is fueled in part by the rise of blended learning programs, which use computers to make it easier to teach students at their specific ability level and pace. The federal government encouraged competency-based learning reforms in Race to the Top applications.
While some advocates envision transformed schools where grade levels and bell schedules are irrelevant and all students work on their own track, D.C. school officials say they intend to start slowly, with a pilot program. Schools would apply to participate this spring on a course-by-course basis. An OSSE-convened panel of educators and curriculum experts would decide whether their proposals are sufficiently challenging.
Alexandra Pardo, executive director at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter, said her school recently won a foundation grant to try more flexible pacing for math classes, where skills build on one another and mastery of concepts is particularly important.
Like in most city high schools, Pardo said, many students are below grade level and need extra time to catch up, while others are ready to move ahead. “They are all sitting in the same Algebra I class,” she said.
City education officials and charter school leaders have been studying the issue for two years, researching how schools across the country approach competency-based learning. Members of the study group took a trip to Maine, one of two states that passed policies linking credit to competency statewide.
The State Board also has been exploring competency-based learning as part of a stalled effort to revamp graduation requirements. A proposal to increase requirements for physical education, art and music also included flexibility to allow students to earn credits outside of class by participating on sports teams or taking part in extracurricular arts and music programs.
Several State Board members said they support the concept of competency-based learning, but some are frustrated by the timing of the proposed regulations. The State Board advises and votes on graduation requirements, but only OSSE can write and initiate new policies.
The proposed regulations were initially published Nov. 28 for a 30-day public review. But the State Board may vote this week, well before the public comment period is scheduled to end. Jesse B. Rauch, executive director of the State Board, said the board can — and historically has — cast votes during the public-review period.
Board member Mary Lord (At Large) said she should not be expected to vote on a major proposal that was offered with little more background information than a PowerPoint presentation and before the public has a chance to understand it.
During a meeting with OSSE officials this month, some board members had questions about the proposal to give a diploma, rather than a credential, to students who pass the GED. As of early December, 374 D.C. residents had taken the GED this year.
In the District, you must be 18 to take the test, and many test-takers are older. But the shift could have a significant effect on graduation rates at alternative schools that offer GED preparation classes, such as Ballou STAY, which reported a 4 percent four-year graduation rate in 2013.
Currently, 13 states, including Maryland, award diplomas to those who pass the GED. City officials maintain that those who pass the test are demonstrating the same cognitive skills and abilities as a high school graduate, and a diploma could give them a better chance at getting a job or pursuing higher education.
The GED was revised this year to align with Common Core academic standards, and the threshold for passing the test is based on how a sample of high school graduating seniors perform on it.
“I think it’s a valid approach, but I don’t think it’s the same” as actually attending and finishing high school, Laura Slover, an outgoing board member from Ward 3, said during a State Board meeting this month. She recommended that if GED recipients receive a diploma, they should be reported separately.
Some research shows that although GED test-takers can demonstrate comparable cognitive skills, they are less likely to demonstrate life skills such as perseverance that students develop by reporting to school day in and day out.
In a city where 30 percent of high school students cycle between schools, often between charter and traditional public schools, some have questioned whether credits earned through more flexible approaches would be transferable between schools. Some wonder whether OSSE’s role should be stronger in regulating what course mastery should look like, while some charter leaders believe they should have autonomy on such issues.
In the midst of the debate, city officials are scrambling to develop a plan that could be approved in time to implement by next school year.
“We have recognized that this is an idea that could be beneficial, and we want to move it forward as quickly as possible,” said Antoinette Mitchell, the assistant superintendent for postsecondary and career education at OSSE. “If not, there’s always next year.”