Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation Thursday that will lead to an overhaul of the state’s high school graduation requirements, aiming to make high school more relevant to the working world and giving students who want to start a career after high school more alternatives to fulfill requirements.
The bill, signed in the library of Arlington’s Wakefield High School, directs the state Board of Education to rewrite requirements that will apply to students entering high school in fall 2018. McAuliffe also signed a bill that will allow industry professionals to earn temporary teaching credentials with less-onerous requirements than traditionally required; the state hopes to get more career and technical teachers into schools.
The board has not specified how it plans to adjust high school graduation requirements, but members probably will take direction from McAuliffe, who has pushed for a boost in career preparation and technical opportunities.
“Our high schools don’t work the way they should any more. They were built for the Industrial Revolution,” McAuliffe said, noting that the Industrial Age has ended. “We now live in a 21st-century economy. Our students deserve much better and I know that our high schools can do so much more than they’ve done.”
McAuliffe said that the state’s schools generally have been too fixated on preparing students for standardized exams, and he has advocated reducing the number of state standardized tests.
Virginia’s high school graduation requirements — which require students to take certain courses and pass state Standards of Learning (SOL) exams — can make it difficult for some to fit career and technical education courses into their schedules. Those courses do not always count toward graduation requirements, even though they might be better suited for students who want to enter the workforce right after high school.
“My students have had that as a challenge,” said Margaret Chung, principal of the Arlington Career Center, where students take courses in nursing, cosmetology, automotive technology and cybersecurity.
Jonathan Amaya, 18, is studying cybersecurity at the career center. But because he has not taken enough high school science credits, he will earn a standard high school diploma instead of an advanced one. Most Arlington seniors graduate with the advanced diploma, but Amaya said it was worth the trade-off.
“It’s a hands-on experience,” Amaya said of his cybersecurity courses. “This is preparing me for the real world.”
Chad Maclin, program manager for trade and industrial education in Fairfax County and the executive director of the Foundation for Applied Technical Education, said he hopes to see courses that merge traditional academic disciplines with real-world career preparation so students do not face the sort of scheduling dilemmas that force them to choose between a valuable technical education course and a graduation requirement.
“Can we teach engineering while teaching math and science? I think we can probably do that,” Maclin said.
Sen. John C. Miller (D-Newport News), one of the bill’s sponsors who is now deceased, had advocated for students to be able to focus on core academic courses for the first two years of high school and then tailor their course work to plans after graduation.
Students would be “free to decide whether they would like to go to college and continue on with education courses or if they would prefer the flexibility to try and come up with the skills needed for a career,” Miller said in February.
Joan Wodiska, vice president of the state Board of Education, said a well-rounded education will serve the state’s students well.
“What we’ve heard from local leaders, parents, superintendents and the business community is that for Virginians to compete in the global economy, that students have to have access to the soft skills, the critical thinking, teamwork, collaboration and communication,” Wodiska said.