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High School Graduation Requirements Get Limber

Some states consider scrapping one-size-fits-all high school graduation requirements.

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A farmer mentors a high school student. Flexible graduation requirements would allow students to substitute career training for traditional courses.
Flexible graduation requirements would allow students to substitute career training for traditional courses.

Loosening high school graduation requirements to stem dropouts and improve college and career readiness may seem counterintuitive, but some states are doing just that.

On Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott inked a bill that scraps algebra II, chemistry and physics requirements and creates three distinct diplomas – standard, scholar and merit – for high school students starting in the 2013-2014 school year.

The change allows "merit" students to substitute industry training for some math, science and English courses, but still requires university-bound students – scholars – to complete advanced courses. Students can earn a standard diploma by completing algebra I - the minimum required by all students - and biology.

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Lawmakers in Michigan and Texas are also considering proposals that would adapt requirements to accommodate students interested in fields such as construction, farming or manufacturing.

"Anything that provides options, that makes sense to families and students, ultimately will be a good thing for kids," says George Heitsch, superintendent of the Avondale School District in Michigan.

Michigan students already have the option to create a personalized curriculum that integrates career and technical education courses. Students in Heitsch's district can take vocational classes at a regional high school, splitting their day between the two schools.

"I think this generation of students and families are open to multiple pathways like that," Heitsch says.

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Kevin Sharp, an English teacher at Palo Alto High School in California, thinks the multitrack approach makes sense. While most of the students at his school "load their schedules with AP and Honors classes," many don't have their sights set on college at all, Sharp said via email.

"These kids aren't really serviced by a one-size-fits-all set of requirements," he wrote. "[They] don't see value in, for example, higher-level math and science classes and, honestly, it's hard to disagree."

But some experts say injecting wiggle room into requirements will limit the options a student has after high school.

"In order to give students the greatest number of pathways to pursue, we have to ensure that when they graduate from high school they are prepared for college, career and life," Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of the advocacy group Expect More Arizona, said via email.

"Flexible graduation requirements are playing out in a way that is going to lower the bar for students and ultimately under prepare them."

While that is a concern, students rarely calculate the angles of an obtuse triangle after high school, Sharp notes.

Since leaving high school, Sharp said he's only used basic math - addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, percentages - despite taking the subject for four years. "I couldn't solve a geometry problem because I never once thought about it nor needed to use it since the class ended," he said.

Rather than slogging away at geometry, some students may be better served with practical courses in tax preparation or account management, Sharp said.

"I ultimately think that the more real life skills we can integrate into the curriculum, the better."

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