SALT LAKE CITY — Graduation requirements should be more flexible for students, with clearly defined educational and career goals.
That was the recommendation given Friday to members of the Utah State Board of Education by the State Office of Education's Graduation Requirements/Competency Committee.
The committee offered several recommendations for how requirements could be adjusted to better prepare students for college and careers. Chief among them was a proposal to establish three separate graduation pathways to allow students to more easily graduate ahead of schedule or select courses that would prepare them for their intended field of collegiate study.
"Currently, there's one path," said Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for instructional services and a member of the committee. "A person can graduate early now, but it's difficult."
The state currently requires 24 credits for high school graduation, including 13 consisting of essential core subjects — English, math, science and social studies. Five credits must come from defined categories, including art and physical education, and the remaining six are open for students to choose as electives.
Under the committee's recommendation, the three pathways — designated as Early, Standard and Specialized — all would require the 13 essential core credits. But students with clear learning goals would be able to earn the remaining 11 credits from their own academic portfolios or by taking elective courses or internships aimed at their chosen fields of study.
Hales gave the example of a student who is a concert pianist being freed from taking some or all of their 1.5 art credits in order to graduate early. Or, she said, a student who intends to pursue a degree in medicine could earn their art or PE credit by taking electives in science.
"A student could pick a specialized pathway and take 11 fine arts classes," Hales said.
If the recommendation is adopted by the board, it is expected that the majority of students would continue to stay on the standard track to graduation, she said.
But with the recent age change for LDS Church missionaries, more students are expected to pursue early graduation options, and the pathway approach would give local schools and school districts more power to work with students on an individual basis.
The specialized pathway also would allow for struggling students who require remedial coursework to do so without giving up their ability to take elective courses, Hales said.
Some board members expressed concerns with the recommendation, particularly in regards to overspecialization, as opposed to generalization, in education.
Leslie Castle spoke about the value of individuals pursuing a number of interests before ultimately settling on a career path, and Craig Coleman expressed that there is more to education than simply pursuing employment.
"I always get nervous when we start talking about jobs being the end result of education," Coleman said. "I don't ever want to dampen a student's interest in what they're going to study beyond high school because they can't get a job in that area."
In order to ensure that students receive a full breadth of instruction, a student's graduation plan would require the input and approval of academic counselors and school administrators, Hales said.
"This is why you have to have the counselor and the parents involved," she said.
Among the committee's other recommendations was a suggestion that nonacademic indicators such as attendance and citizenship be separated from a student's grade.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, who took part in the committee, said that while those indicators are important and should be required for graduation, they can deflate or inflate a student's scores when grades are averaged out, giving a false representation of student performance.
Similarly, the committee recommended that teachers not be allowed to offer nonacademic extra credit opportunities. To illustrate the point, Hales relayed an experience where a student told her he would receive extra credit for bringing chips and salsa to share with his class.
"Those are the kinds of things that get in the way of parents understanding the true performance of their children," she said.
The committee also recommended that the board enact a clearer policy impeding schools from offering extracurricular activities such as team sports or cheerleading as an elective credit during the school day. Those credits, Hales said, come at the expense of other electives a student might take and pull funding away from academic offerings.
"Those team sports classes were never intended to be a key element," Hales said. "Team sports are supposed to be extracurricular."
The recommendation drew audible protest from some members of the board, but the committee's presentation continued with little discussion on the topic.
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