FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Board of Education unanimously passed new high school graduation requirements Wednesday that were scaled back after a torrent of criticism last week.

Despite passing without a vote in opposition, some board members were dismayed that the proposed standards aren’t as stringent as originally drafted. The Kentucky Department of Education revised the proposed graduation requirements after several educators, administrators and school groups criticized the original iteration last week.

“It seems to me we’ve lowered the bar in many areas here that was not a particularly high bar to begin with,” board member Rich Gimmel said.

The revisions offer additional options for students to demonstrate their ability to read and understand mathematics as well as their readiness for postsecondary work.

The biggest changes came in the section covering what’s known as graduation qualifiers, previously called transition readiness. The new graduation requirements give students a choice to demonstrate either college or career readiness through one of eight paths.

Students who are freshmen in the 2019-20 school year can either complete a precollege curriculum, reach a benchmark score in one section of a college placement or admissions exam, earn three or more hours in a dual credit course with at least a C, passing an advanced class and reaching benchmarks on corresponding exams, earn an industry certification, get four credits in a career pathway, complete two years of an apprenticeship program, or earn 500 hours of work experience.

Requirements that students demonstrate proficiency in reading and math were also tweaked, giving kids more options to show they’re literate and can understand basic math.

Students who are freshmen in the 2021-22 school year must meet minimum test scores in reading and math on state assessments during their sophomore years. If they fail, students can retake the tests twice each in their junior and senior years, demonstrate their comprehension of reading and math in a portfolio, or rely on eighth-grade assessments on which they scored proficient or higher.

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said for him, the new high school graduation proposal is a step in the direction he wants to see high school education go in Kentucky.

For Lewis, the changes in the latest draft reflect concerns he and others have fielded regarding equity, a chief concern for Owsley County Schools Superintendent Tim Brobowski during Thursday’s public hearing.

“I wish that we had these manufacturers and these jobs that kids could go in and mentor and shadow professionals in their work to kind of guide that career,” Brobowski said last week. “I love the idea.”

Larger school systems like those in Jefferson and Fayette counties can offer dozens of career pathways and advanced courses for their students that other counties simply can’t, Lewis said.

“I still believe that even the most resource-starved county could provide two to three of the options,” Lewis said. “But it’s two to three versus in Fayette County or Jefferson County, it could be 30, so there is an equity concern.”

“As much and as high as I want to recommend raising the bar and as much as I’m going to continue to push to raise the bar, I do think we have to do that while being mindful of the inequities that are currently the reality across our districts,” he added.

Some groups that previously spoke against the originally proposed graduation requirements praised Lewis for offering revisions to the plan.

Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler said in a statement that her group appreciates that Lewis listened to feedback and made key changes to the proposal.

“Invoking new requirements without thoughtful discussions with stakeholders only creates turmoil for school systems that already face financial struggles and can’t afford to create new requirement options,” Winkler said. “Listening to those who are in our classrooms everyday just makes sense. Scaling back these changes was the right thing to do.”

The Kentucky School Boards Association said in a statement that public comments benefited the proposal, but the group would have liked to see additional review and fiscal analyses.

“Our concerns on behalf of local school boards over inequities and unintended consequences at the district level – the same ones echoed by other education groups throughout the Commonwealth – warranted further discussion,” KSBA said. “Now legislators will have an opportunity to carefully review all aspects of the proposal. KSBA will work with our partners in the General Assembly as they undertake these measures.”

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said after Wednesday’s meeting that her group was still disappointed that the state education board didn’t take more time to develop a proposal that will yield meaningful diplomas for high school graduates and that members didn’t engage stakeholders in the development process.

Hal Heiner, chairman of the state board, noted that the graduation requirement revisions had been in the works for months beginning earlier this year and that stakeholders had several opportunities to raise their concerns.

For Ramsey, creating a high-stakes environment for students to graduate warranted further consideration.

“Whether it’s eight months, which the board says it’s been, or it’s a year and a half or three years, getting it right is the most important part,” she said.

The proposed graduation requirements now go to the legislature’s Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee for its consideration.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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