Are high-school diplomas in Washington becoming meaningless? This is the question education officials are wrestling with as they prepare to finalize new rules governing what students must do to graduate.

Washington students were among some of the last in the nation required to pass a set of federally mandated exams to finish high school. Students must still take these tests, called Smarter Balanced Assessments. But in the spring, legislators voted almost unanimously to cut the tie between the exams and a diploma. They also outlined a series of alternative paths to graduation, but left the fine print up to the state’s Board of Education. That board has spent the past several months drafting a set of new rules.

Now, Washingtonians have 15 days to weigh in on proposed pathways. The board will hold a public hearing Oct. 24 in Olympia, where anyone interested can voice an  opinion. People who can’t make the meeting have until Oct. 28 to email comments to rulescoordinatorSBE@k12.wa.us.

Why the change? Lawmakers and education officials didn’t like that students who missed out by just a few points on the high-stakes tests were kept from graduating. Adding a variety of paths to graduation recognizes multiple types of learning, board officials say. It also adds flexibility for students who aim to pursue a technical career, join the military or enroll in a two-year degree program.

Starting with the class of 2020, students would be required to meet a set of credit requirements and complete at least one of the following:

  • Pass the federal Smarter Balanced math and English tests.
  • Earn high-school math and English credits by enrolling in "dual-credit" courses.
  • Pass certain Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge International exams, or pass certain "transition" courses that allow students to enroll in college-level coursework.
  • Reach minimum scores set by the state on the SAT or ACT.
  • Earn a minimum score on a military-aptitude test.
  • Take two career technical-education (CTE) courses.

“The paths provide students with something that is actually useful for their next step,” said Linda Drake, director of career and college readiness initiatives at the State Board of Education.

Something as substantial as changing graduation requirements has riled criticism from some members of the state’s business and education advocacy communities. The pathways don’t parallel the rigor that came with the standardized tests, said officials from the League of Education Voters, which took a stance against decoupling the high-school diploma from test scores.

Three of the pathways have drawn particular scrutiny: "dual credit," career and technical, and military options, according to a letter a handful of education and business leaders wrote to the state board last month.

Students who pass "dual credit" courses typically earn high-school and college credit simultaneously.  But to get the college credit, they may be required to fill out extra paperwork and enroll at a college campus. Under the new pathway, students could graduate without taking these extra steps: in this case, they would only get high-school, not college, credit. This isn’t faithful to what the Legislature intended and weakens the value of these dual-credit courses to students, said Libuse Binder, who signed the letter and is executive director at the nonprofit Stand for Children Washington. If students complete such a course, she said, they should be required to get the college credit they’ve earned.

Students can also graduate if they achieve the lowest passing score on a military-aptitude test — which would allow them to enroll in the Army, but no other branches of the armed forces. This is akin to the path allowing students to graduate if they receive passing scores on AP or IB tests, board officials said. But in the case of the military path, some advocates contend, such a low bar may keep students from pursuing advanced military careers.

The CTE pathway may also do little to help students achieve their career goals, according to some advocates. This path doesn’t require students to take courses in the same discipline, only that they complete two classes. The rules do require that the courses are in line with students career goals. But not all CTE programs are equal, and there's little regulation guaranteeing students have access to high-quality courses.

These options give too much discretion to school administrators, who could funnel students in a direction that doesn’t necessarily fit with their post-high-school goals, said Steve Smith, executive director of the Black Education Strategy Roundtable. This would be particularly troublesome if this happens to students who just miss the cutoff score on the Smarter Balanced tests, said Smith, who also signed the letter. Such students may pass their second time around if given the opportunity.

“Whatever the lowest rung is in the process is where we will see more and more students being pushed to,” he said.

State schools chief Chris Reykdal says he will monitor which students wind up in each pathway. Reykdal, a member of the State Board of Education, said he generally supports the pathway options but the CTE pathway “comes up short” and could unintentionally breed inequity among students.

It’s too soon to make such sweeping conclusions, some say.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Christopher Nesmith, who runs a well-regarded career technical-education program at the West Valley School District in Yakima. “If we really mean we’re going to educate all students, we need to have programming that represents all students.”

The board plans to vote on the proposed pathways at its November meeting.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong location for the West Valley School District.