State's students will need more English and social studies, less electives, to graduate

Nov 11, 2011

It’s been more than a quarter century since high school graduation requirements changed in our state. Now, the board of education has voted to increase credits in certain subjects. 

Some school administrators say the move is a step backward for other learning opportunities.  

Right now, students in some large districts, such as Seattle, only need three years of English to graduate. Students in other districts, including Puyallup, are done with social studies after 2 1/2 years. 

The state board of education vote means they'll soon have to take more classes in those subjects, plus fulfill a civics requirement. 

Jeff Vincent, chair of the board, says it’s the right decision given today's global economy:

“Our kids are competing for jobs, not just with a kid down the street or a kid in Texas, they’re competing with kids around the world," he says. "We have to make sure our kids have the skills that are required to get a living wage job.”  

He says the changes are especially crucial because they catch Washington up with the majority of other states. Nearly 80 percent of districts here have already increased the credits on their own.

Goal to be cost neutral

For the remaining schools to add more English and social studies classes, it could cost up to $2 million for large districts, according to an estimate submitted to the board by Seattle Public Schools. Since the state isn't going to foot that bill, the board of education slashed electives by 1 1/2 credits to make the change "cost neutral." 

Here's the breakdown of the new requirements:

  • Increase English from 3 credits to 4 credits.
  • Increase social studies from 2.5 credits to 3 credits; require .5 credit of civics.
  • Decrease electives from 5.5 to 4 credits.
  • Make successful completion of Washington State History and Government a non-credit requirement.
  • Clarify that the 2 credits of health and fitness includes .5 credits of health and 1.5 credits of fitness.
  • Create a “two for one” policy that would enable students taking a CTE-equivalent course to satisfy two graduation requirements while earning one credit.

The board also voted to allow schools with budget concerns apply for a two-year waiver.

Opponents point out "hidden" price

Larry Francois, superintendent of the Northshore School District, says even though his district probably won't spend much to shift classes around, there is a cost to students.

“I wouldn’t want to say for a minute that an additional English course was less or more important than a band or orchestra course,” he says. “That band or orchestra course may be absolutely crucial for that student in what interests them and draws them to school. I think until we can offer them the opportunity to do both of those, we need to think very carefully about restricting what opportunities we’re able to make available to students.”

He says the new requirements were a big enough concern to send someone on the three-hour drive from Bothell to Vancouver to testify at the board of education’s meeting. Dozens of parents, community members and teachers also wrote to the board in opposition to decreasing electives. Not everyone feels that way, though. Seattle school administrators say they support the shift.

Unless the legislature overturns the changes, they’ll be required for the class of 2016.