Thursday, November 26, 2015         

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BOE sets courses for new diplomas

High schoolers will be able to choose two graduation tracks, one of them college prep

By Mary Vorsino


The state has three years to get schools, teachers and incoming high school freshmen ready for tougher graduation requirements.

Under a plan approved last week that will take effect starting with the class of 2018 — today's fifth-graders — students will be able to choose one of two diploma tracks.

The "college and career ready" diploma will require students to complete two lab sciences, algebra 2 or an equivalent math course and a senior project.

Another track is designed for students who may not be interested in higher-level math or lab science, and so requires fewer math courses but still mandates that students take algebra 1 and biology to graduate.

The current diploma requires at least three credits in math and three in science, but does not specify what courses students must take.

Critics of the changes worry the new graduation policy could discourage students whose strong suit isn't math or science and push up the dropout rate.

Supporters argue the new requirements will better prepare Hawaii high school graduates for an increasingly competitive work force, and will help improve disappointing high school math and science proficiency numbers.

The departing elected Board of Education narrowly passed the new graduation requirements Thursday night in a 7-5 vote, and only after making hefty amendments.

The Department of Education had recommended that the "college and career ready" diploma be the default, requiring parental permission for students to "opt out" of the stiffer standards. Instead, board members created two diploma tracks.

It is unclear whether the department will seek to revisit the diploma requirements with the new appointed BOE, whose members will officially be seated later this month.

Spokeswoman Sandy Goya said the new policy was being reviewed by DOE officials.

Strengthening high school graduation requirements was a key pledge for the Department of Education as part of new reforms to boost student achievement and improve the national standing of Hawaii's public school system.

Elected BOE Chairman Garrett Toguchi, who opposed the changes, said the department is pushing the "college and career ready" diploma forward before students and schools are ready — and at a time when the state's fiscal woes are mounting.

"How are they going to support these kids?" he asked.

The Department of Education acknowledges that the new requirements are tough, but officials say they are doable — with the right interventions for students, the right training for teachers and enough investment in classrooms and materials.

In a letter to Toguchi, schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said the DOE will ensure the dropout rate doesn't increase with the new requirements by providing more academic interventions to students who are falling behind.

In the 2009-10 school year, Hawaii's dropout rate stood at about 16.5 percent.

Matayoshi said the work of preparing high schoolers for the tougher math and science standards won't start when students are freshmen, but with more rigorous standards in elementary and middle schools.

"The department recognizes that supporting students to pursue the college and career ready diploma must begin well before students enter high school," she said.

In recent years, many have raised concern about the readiness of Hawaii's public school graduates for college or the work force. Last school year, just four out of 10 high school sophomores statewide were proficient in math.

And some 38 percent of 2009 high school graduates who enrolled in the University of Hawaii had to take a remedial math course.

Hawaii joins a host of other states toughening graduation requirements in a bid to improve the nation's college-going rate.

Putting the new requirements in place will come with a price tag, but officials say it's not yet clear how much will need to be spent on training and new materials.

The department has requested $35 million over the next two fiscal years to update high school science labs, some of which were built in the 1930s.

Catherine Bratt, principal of Kohala High and an alumna of the school, said the campus has one lab that pretty much looks the same as when she was a student there.

"I just turned 69," she said. "It's pretty antiquated."

BOE member Kim Coco Iwamoto, who voted against the new diploma requirements, said the department doesn't have the infrastructure in place to require more math and lab science courses and that the new diploma could set some students up for failure.

Iwamoto's concern is not only about outdated labs, but also about whether there are enough qualified teachers for the higher-level math courses.

Of the 1,158 math teachers in Hawaii high schools, about 36 percent do not have pedagogical training or have not demonstrated content competency through either coursework or an assessment, the DOE reported.

"If our goal is to increase math proficiency in our graduates, perhaps we should determine whether that goal is better served by having students take fewer math courses from highly qualified math teachers instead of taking more courses from teachers who are not qualified to teach math," Iwamoto said in a written statement. "Every student must have equal access and equal opportunity to meet the requirements set by the DOE."

The tougher graduation requirements come as the department is encouraging students to voluntarily go for a more rigorous diploma track, called the BOE "Step Up" diploma, that was offered for the first time to students who entered their freshman year in 2009.

More than 9,800 eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders have pledged to work toward the BOE diploma, whose requirements are almost identical to the more rigorous "college and career ready" diploma set to go into effect.

Several schools have recruited a large percentage of their class of 2013 to strive for the special diploma, but other schools are seeing participation in the single digits.

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