States ease graduation requirements as coronavirus closures extend

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered school buildings across the nation at unprecedented speed, with nearly all states closed through April and a handful extending closures through the end of the academic year. For high schools, the rapidly changing situation has thrown usual traditions for a loop: senior proms are being canceled and graduation ceremonies postponed or becoming virtual events. 

Among those changes are recommendations or orders from many states —​ including Virginia, Tennessee, Washington, Kansas and Idaho —​ to waive certain graduation requirements. 

According to the Education Commission of the States, decisions around graduations are pending in many states. Others have received word to alter graduation requirements and are ironing out the details.​

In Washington, one of the earliest states to be affected by the virus, a law signed March 17 allows the state board to waive core credit requirements for districts that “demonstrate a good faith effort” to address them. But what meets that bar and how much will be waived is up for interpretation by Washington’s State Board of Education. 

“We think the first option is to try to get [seniors] the credit through different options,” Randy Spaulding, executive director of the board of education, said.

Alternate routes for Washington districts include:

  • Offering non-CTE course equivalents for CTE classes.
  • Allowing a single course to knock out two graduation requirements.
  • Offering “pass” or “no credit” transcript designations instead of letter grades.

The changes will be made for students who were otherwise “on track” to graduate. According to the Washington board’s initial interpretation, this could mean students who completed or were enrolled in courses that would allow them to meet the state graduation requirements by the end of the 2019-20 school year. 

Those who weren’t on track will have much more to make up once schools reopen, Spaulding said. 

“The message that we sent to families in our districts is: Seniors, you’re not off the hook yet. You need to keep working hard,” Washington’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction​ Chris Reykdal said. 

Other alternatives

In Kansas, the state board has urged districts to stick to only 21 required credits. Most districts have additional course requirements that the state is urging they scale back, like internships and community service hours. 

“We’ve had a few districts say, ‘You know what? We’re just going to make sure they’ve met at least the state’s graduation requirements,’” said Brad Neuenswander, deputy commissioner for Kansas Department of Education’s Division of Learning Services. Typically for seniors, those requirements are courses in government and English.

According to that standard, many Kansas seniors have already graduated. 

Virginia is in a similar boat: The majority of its high school seniors have met most of the state’s graduation requirements, Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in a statement. And the state is providing additional flexibility for seniors around CTE credentials, sequential course requirements, and other course requirements like economics and personal finance to make graduation possible.  

Meanwhile, in Idaho, state assessments have been waived along with the senior project and college entrance exams. 

‘Everything will be OK’

In Washington,state leaders are also working through possible consequences of credit waivers when students enter college. “If we’re waiving say half a credit of English,” Spaulding explained, “that might have an impact on whether or not that student would have to do some renegade or make up work at [a postsecondary] institution.” 

The state is working with its higher education partners to make sure they are prepared for those kinds of credit changes in the admissions process, Michael Meotti, executive director of Washington Student Achievement Council, said. 

“Don’t worry about checking this box or that box in terms of the traditional world of courses and admissions,” Meotti is telling seniors. “You’ll be able to come [to college] in the fall and everything will be OK.” 

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