Tennessee standards in K-12 education are on the rise, with new curriculum standards and new (harder) TCAP tests likely to be phasing in next year. The lower grades are driven in part by the significant gap between proficiency on our state tests, and the state’s proficiency on the NAEP.
Concurrent with those changes, we’re very likely to see higher standards for high school graduation as well, as a result of the Tennessee Diploma Project (view the whole report). In the near term, that will mean requiring four years of high school math (instead of the current three), requiring a half-year of "personal finance," and replacing the Gateway exams (passage of which is required for graduation) with more rigorous end-of-course exams (which will count for a higher percentage of the final grade than the Gateway’s 15%).
Current research shows that college-readiness and workforce-readiness are pretty much the same thing, so the old two-tiered system (college prep vs. vocational) is going away. That doesn’t mean that we’ll do away with courses like welding, manufacturing, networking, etc. — but it means that students in vocational courses will be expected to meet the same level of academic rigor as those headed for college.
Without question, higher standards will benefit our students and our state in the long run. Also without question, they will cause some pain. Some students may not graduate on time, bringing the risk of still more dings to the graduation rate (the calculation of which is, in my opinion, flawed), and unless we lengthen the school day, the additional course requirements will further squeeze an already limited schedule so that students have fewer options than before.
For example, a high school student may not be able to take three or four years of foreign language (two are required) AND four years of marching band (one year of fine arts credit is required). One way around that could be zero-hour courses — optional class offerings at 7 a.m. or 3 p.m., for example; another would be to allow additional high school course credits to be earned in middle school. Already, many students take Algebra I in middle school; if we could expand that to allow foreign language credits to be earned in middle school as well, that would ease the schedule somewhat.
New, higher standards are on the way. And, it’s a good thing — but there’s going to be some discomfort in the process. Schedule-wise, something will have to give.