Should COVID Make It Easier for Students to Graduate?

This week BESE had an important discussion about our expectations for students. This one dealt with high school graduation in the world of COVID. The issues at the heart of it are worth considering.

Louisiana schools, students, and educators have been through two years of COVID. It closed school early in 2020, caused a shaky reopening the following school year, and forced disruptions in the way teachers teach and students learn.

There is no question that it created challenges, but it also elicited a response. The state Department of Education got districts to create comprehensive plans for learning recovery and the federal government sent billions of dollars to Louisiana to provide the resources to support that work.

So, this week BESE called an emergency meeting to consider a proposal to waive high school graduation requirements because of the pandemic. The rationale was that given the disruptions and the challenges so many students faced, it would be unfair to apply the same graduation requirements to these students as we use for students in normal years. Teachers, students, and schools all worked hard in often difficult circumstances, and they deserve some leniency.

In fact, it’s hard to look back at the last couple of years and not feel tremendous empathy for everyone involved in education. They persevered in extraordinary circumstances. But the response to COVID should not be to lower our standards and simply allow students to graduate if they haven’t met the requirements.

Too often, anytime something changes there is a rush to waive requirements or pause accountability measures. Sometimes that can be justified. But in this instance, when you are looking at graduation requirements there are real-world consequences to consider.

One of them is what a diploma means. Theoretically, it means that the state of Louisiana has deemed that students who graduate have demonstrated the skills and proficiency needed to be successful in college, a job, or technical training. If you fail to meet the diploma’s requirements, we’re saying you don’t yet have those skills.

As bad as we feel for students who had to endure two years of COVID schooling, it doesn’t change what they need to know to be able to succeed at the next level. Moving them to the next level anyway does no service to them and, in fact, puts them at a disadvantage. They will still need remediation and if they have to get it at a community college or university, they will have to pay for it. If they go straight to work, that burden will be on their employer.

We have received billions of dollars to deal with learning issues exactly like this. The better path would be to use that funding to get students where they need to be even if it takes some additional time, rather than telling them they are ready for what comes next, when they’re not.

Our workforce needs better-educated workers not those who are less prepared. And sadly, Louisiana’s high school graduation requirements are already modest. The test that’s causing the current hiccup for graduation only requires that a student receive a score of “Approaching Basic,” just one level above the bottom category of “Unsatisfactory.” Should we really be promoting students who are unsatisfactory in basic course work under any circumstances?

In the end, BESE decided not to apply a statewide waiver of the high school requirements due to COVID, but they did allow for a waiver for students in the Hurricane Ida disaster area declared by the governor.

That apparently includes 25 parishes, some of which were more severely impacted than others. As much as some of those students were affected, and in some cases, it was huge, the issue of waivers begs the same question.

Does our high school diploma mean something or not? Is it okay to graduate students who are unprepared, or not?

We should in no way minimize the challenges many of our students have faced from COVID and hurricanes. But our response should be to go the extra mile with the many resources we have available to overcome their challenges and get them to a place where they can truly be successful.

From CABL’s perspective, that’s what it means to put students first.

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