Kentucky’s New High School Graduation Requirements: Better Aligning the Diploma with Readiness

Last week, Kentucky’s minimum high school graduation requirements changed pretty substantively for the first time in more than ten years. These changes go into effect for the high school graduating classes of 2023 and 2024. With one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, it might surprise some to know that revision to the state’s high school graduation requirements has been a top priority of the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Board of Education. The reason why is simple: While we are proud of fact that we are graduating record numbers and percentages of Kentucky high school students, we are not satisfied with the postsecondary and workforce outcomes of our high school graduates. As such, we believed it essential to revise minimum requirements for graduation to better align with readiness standards for college and the 21st Century economy.

The minimum number of credit hours students must earn to receive a Kentucky high school diploma has not changed, but the new requirements infuse a combination of increased flexibility and rigor. The revised graduation requirements are intended to ensure that every Kentucky high school student has the flexibility to pursue different paths toward graduation as they prepare for the next phase of their lives, and that prior to graduating, each student has taken at least one demonstrable step toward readiness for postsecondary learning and the workforce. Central to the changes are the following elements:

  • Greater Course Flexibility: All students will be required to earn four (4) credits in mathematics and four (4) credits in English, but there are fewer specific courses they will be required to take. For example, in English, students will only be required to take English I and English II. The additional two English courses must be aligned to the Kentucky academic standards, but students have greater flexibility to choose courses. Substitute courses might be in literature or creative writing for example. Similarly in mathematics, students will be required to earn four (4) credits, but only required to take Algebra I and Geometry specifically. The additional two math courses must align with the Kentucky Academic Standards, but may or may not include Algebra II. Students have similar flexibility with choosing courses in science (3 credits) and social studies (3 credits).
  • Demonstration of Basic Academic Skills: Students will be required to demonstrate basic competence in reading and mathematics as a condition for graduating high school in Kentucky. Students will be permitted to demonstrate competence by (a) earning a score of Proficient or higher on their already required, state 8th grade reading and mathematics assessments; (b) earning a score of Apprentice or higher on their already required, state 10th grade reading and mathematics assessments; submitting to the local district superintendent a collection of evidences (portfolio) illustrating basic competence in reading and math; or through any combination of these routes.
  • A Step Toward Readiness: In order to graduate, students will be required to complete one of eight graduation qualifiers. These qualifiers include both purely academic indicators of readiness, workforce readiness-oriented indicators, and some indicators that are a combination of the two types. As well, students’ IEP teams are granted the ability to make qualifier modifications based on students’ disabilities and transition needs. These qualifiers include: reaching a Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) designated benchmark score on a college entrance or college placement examination in English, reading, or mathematics; completing the CPE-designated pre-college curriculum, including two credits in World Languages; earning a Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board (KWIB)-approved industry recognized credential; completing four courses in a single a Kentucky Department of Education (KDE)-approved career pathway; completing two years in a KDE/Labor Cabinet-approved pre-apprenticeship program; completing three (3) postsecondary credit hours of KDE-approved dual credit; earning a qualifying score at the completion of an AP, IB, or Cambridge International course; or completing verified 500 hours of exceptional work experience.

Finally, in addition to these changes approved by the Kentucky Board of Education, the Kentucky General Assembly has added new requirements for high school graduation, including passing a Civics examination and receiving instruction in financial literacy through a course or program aligned with standards to be developed by the Kentucky Board of Education.

Kentucky’s revised high school graduation requirements are an important step forward for the state. While meeting this new minimum bar for graduation does not necessarily mean students are well-prepared for postsecondary learning and the workforce, meeting this bar does require that students demonstrate basic academic competence and take a step toward postsecondary and workforce readiness. In order to ensure that more kentucky high school graduates are finding success after graduation, KDE and the Kentucky Board of Education will need to monitor graduates’ post-high school outcomes in the years to come, and if need be, take additional steps to align graduation requirements with the standards and expectations of colleges and businesses. The true mark of whether we have a successful public education system is whether students exiting our system have been equipped for success.

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