Grad requirements

FILE — A West Valley High School student threads a depth gauge part on a milling machine in April 2017.

Yakima County school district officials lauded a new option for students to graduate from high school by completing technical education courses, rather than a standardized test, during a State Board of Education community forum Tuesday.

But concerns over its execution remain.

As of the 2020-21 school year, students will no longer be required to pass the state assessment to graduate. Instead, it will be one of several avenues to graduate, including completing Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses, achieving certain ACT or SAT scores, or completing and qualifying for dual credit courses in English and math, for example.

Students who graduate from high school are more likely to earn a higher income, have greater economic mobility across generations and are less likely to be incarcerated, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In 2018, just 73 percent of adults over age 25 in Yakima County had graduated from high school, compared with over 90 percent at the state and national level.

The new options could help address that gap.

On Tuesday, a community forum was held in Yakima by the state board to gather community feedback on how the graduation pathway changes might impact student equity.

While several new options followed more traditional education trajectories, such as earning certain Advanced Placement marks, several local district officials voiced optimism that the CTE option could make graduation more accessible to a broader range of students.

The option is one of eight new pathways to graduation.

It requires students to complete a sequence of two or more high school CTE courses that align with their High School and Beyond Plan. The courses can be within the same program area, or across programs.

Technical programs might include manufacturing, business, agriculture, construction and information technology, among others.

“We’re just excited about the opportunity to provide kids with access to post-secondary opportunities other than college,” said Sean Meyers, assistant superintendent for Toppenish School District.

Meyers added that more students with technical backgrounds could help “fill a void with our local businesses and industries as they’re looking for very high-skilled employees,” either by directly entering the industry after high school or going through further technical training. This would also help set students up to graduate and earn a living wage, he said.

Selah Superintendent Shane Backlund echoed him, noting a Selah job announcement for electricians earning $48 per hour. But Backlund said that in order to get students interested in technical industries, districts needed to start offering technical courses earlier.

“As a district, it’s our job to help them find something that they want to go into,” he said, adding that students often find areas of interest in middle school.

But finding the staff to teach the courses could prove challenging, said East Valley School District CTE director Amanda Barnett.

“We’re trying to expand these programs and our offerings, but there’s a staffing shortage,” she said.

In order to teach a technical course, she said, a teacher has to either specialize in a topic like agriculture while getting their teaching certificate or leave the industry to teach. If they do the latter, they can teach only courses specific to their industry experience unless they return to school for a teaching certificate. Often, she added, they also take a pay cut by switching to teaching.

“How can we ramp this up and get more support within (CTE)?” she asked a group of school officials.

Several local district officials expressed appreciation for the flexibility allowing students to take courses across programs provided. This would allow students to explore industries without being penalized for changing their interests, said Yakima School District Superintendent Trevor Greene.

But Chris Nesmith, director of innovation for West Valley School District, worried that the option might not align with federal technical education standards, creating an option that doesn’t benefit students in the future.

“Are we bringing students up to a different form of rigor?” he asked. “Are we going to bring federal and state requirements in line? That’s what I’m really curious to see as this comes together.”

So far, this will likely be up to individual districts, according to State Board of Education executive director Randy Spaulding.

“The way we drafted the rules, it allows for different programs of study,” he said, pointing to the option for students to take technical courses across programs. “This could be at odds with (federal standards)."

On Thursday, the board will approve the draft rules; board members are expected to adopt the rules in November. Additional feedback may be provided to lawmakers after the rules are finalized for future adjustments to the pathways.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka