What It Takes to Graduate from High School in DC

This afternoon, the High School Credit Flexibility Task Force is meeting. And what they discuss may change your view of education in DC.

Since August, the task force–run by DC’s elected state board of education (which approves graduation requirements for high school)–has been examining whether (and how) to change the standards used for graduation from DC public schools.

Current regulations call for the use of the Carnegie unit, which provides school credit when a student has passed a course consisting of at least 120 hours. Graduation from high school in DC requires 24 Carnegie units.

The state board (whose website for the task force notes that “meeting the learning needs of all students requires a personalized approach”) is examining adopting “competency-based education” in some way. In competency-based education, credit is awarded based on what a student demonstrates he or she has mastered.

But how, and to whom, remain up in the air.

In December 2014, in a memo to the state board chair, former OSSE head Jesus Aguirre noted that because the Carnegie unit requires a set amount of “seat time,” schools are hampered in using “meaningful innovation, such as technology driven and experiential education” to ensure higher graduation rates.

The idea is that in competency-based education, students could take whatever time is needed to gain mastery, use computers to take complete courses, and/or work outside the classroom or in one course that combines several subjects’ content.

Despite the enthusiasm of the U.S. Department of Education for competency-based education, not everyone is enamored of the idea.

In a report from January 2015, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching noted that the Carnegie unit provides an essential yardstick in school systems where teaching and learning may vary greatly.

For DC, with the widest achievement gap in the nation and inequities between schools, this change in graduation requirements potentially amounts to a big deal. The report notes that the Carnegie unit ensures equality in time spent learning and thus “is not the impenetrable barrier to innovation and improvement that some have suggested.”

DC schools activist (and retired teacher) Erich Martel calls the potential change a shift away from teachers’ decisions regarding student grades to that of school administrators, with perilous results for learning.

In a September letter to the state board, Martel noted that “high school graduation rates are statistical indicators that, without additional descriptive data and diagnostic reports and studies, do not explain the reasons why students do or do not complete graduation requirements. When you use graduation rates as policy-level, qualitative measures of student learning, you undermine the individual courses (subjects) where actual teaching and learning occur.”

Martel also cited a lack of data provided to the task force on enrollment; SAT and other college entrance exams results; attendance; and teacher turnover, all of which, he noted, “would have enabled [task force members] to understand why many students are not graduating.” (Such a lack of publicly accessible data on DC public schools is a longstanding problem, which the National Academies identified this year as a core area to be addressed for schools to function effectively.)

The task force itself appears self-selected: Working alongside representatives from city education agencies, direct school stakeholders were chosen directly by the charter board and DCPS, two of the agencies most affected by the changes.

The task force’s work will conclude by the end of November, for implementation by the end of January. The public is invited to present testimony at several of the meetings.

You can also join public school advocates next Tuesday September 29 to discuss whether the changes are a good idea, in a meeting sponsored by the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators (S.H.A.P.P.E.) at 6 pm at McKinley Tech High School (151 T St. NE).

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