With School Back in Session, Graduation Requirements Get Another Look

August 27, 2015

Students are heading back to school, but the road to graduation for this year's incoming crop of seniors varies by high school. The reason? Unlike other states, Colorado does not have a set requirement for what it takes to receive a diploma.

Creating a standard is an ongoing debate and one that state lawmakers tried to answer in 2007 and 2008 when they approved legislation requiring a minimum statewide requirement. 

"The higher education entry requirements were driving the train; the Commission on Higher Education said these are the things you need to get into college," said Evie Hudak, both a former Democratic state senator and State Board of Education member. "A lot of the school districts felt like higher education was running the show and it should really be K -12 running it."

When it comes to education, Colorado is a local control state, meaning individual school districts largely decide what students need to graduate. Now the state board of education is in the final stages of adopting a more uniform plan.

Gretchen Morgan, who works for both the Colorado Department of Education and the state board of education, said, "it is extremely common for states to have expectations for graduation; we are one of the last to establish those."

The board has recommended competency in English, math, social studies and science. But now they are discussing, among other things, eliminating social studies and science from the requirements after getting input.

"We convened seven groups of stakeholders from across the state and we had education, workforce, labor, business, students to provide updated recommendations," said Misti Ruthven with the Colorado Department of Education.

If the state board of education removes the requirements, some worry it could trickle down to curriculum decisions and actually lead to a step backward for schools and students.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn said any standards must be multifaceted.

"It's one thing to say you need to know X, Y, and Z, but it's another thing to say do you know how to apply it, and what's the evidence what are the artifacts of that, that are acceptable and appropriate for your district to implement," said Munn.

State Senator Michael Merrifield (D-Colorado Springs), himself a former teacher, supports eliminating science and social students from graduation requirements. He serves on the Senate Education Committee and thinks schools are focusing too much on science, technology, engineering and math to the detriment of subjects like art and music.

"There's a lot more to life to being successful in math and science, everybody's not a mathematician; everybody's not a scientist and this over emphasis takes away from subjects that students may have a real interest in," Merrifield said.

Adams 12 Five Star Schools Superintendent Christopher Gdowski thinks graduation requirements will be a focus for superintendents in the upcoming year. And he said for some districts – a statewide standard will be difficult.

"It's a floor that's pretty aggressive compared to where a lot of people set the standard right now," said Gdowski.

That's something that Evie Hudak heard when she served on the Senate Education Committee.

"When you raise them too high, then you don't have every kid able to graduate and there are a whole bunch of people think our goal should be every kid should graduate. And then other people say our kids should be ready to enter college, but the colleges want a higher level of preparation," said Hudak.

It's not clear when or if the state board of education will take up any changes. If they don't do anything, the proposed requirements, that include competency in English, math, social studies and science, will go into effect in 2017 for incoming high school freshman.