Wichita Public Schools students will need more than coursework to earn a diploma

Due to a statewide change, current eighth graders will see new course and career preparation requirements when they enter high school.

by Maria Benevento

Kansas eighth graders need more than required classes to get their high school diplomas.

New requirements approved by the Kansas State Board of Education insist that students complete two “postsecondary assets” — achievements or experiences that prepare them for higher education or the workforce — before they can walk across the stage. 

That can include scoring 21 or higher on the ACT, internships or work experiences, college credits, volunteering, extracurriculars or solid school attendance. Students can choose from a list of 22 options.

Changes to graduation requirements also include new course requirements for communications, personal finance, health and science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The updates that take effect for the class of 2028 line up with some Kansas districts’ recent focus on demonstrating that students are prepared for life after high school. 

Postsecondary assets on the state’s list reflect activities that Wichita Public Schools already encourages, said Loren Hatfield, assistant superintendent of secondary schools, including through its Graduation+ framework that encourages students to earn industry credentials, job experience or college credits in addition to a diploma. 

“Not only is it about graduation, but it’s also about preparedness for life,” she said. Tying graduation to activities such as athletics, clubs, college preparation, volunteering and work, Hatfield said, “dovetails nicely with what schools have been trying to tell freshmen students for a long time, and just adds a nice extra layer of, ‘Here’s why you should do this.’”

The new requirements won’t necessarily be game changers for producing stronger graduates, but they aren’t likely to harm graduation rates either, said Aaron Rife, an associate professor and chair of Wichita State University’s Department of Education.

“There is no way a high school is going to keep somebody from graduating because they didn’t match the postsecondary assets. Can you imagine?” Rife said. “I sincerely believe that the high schools will find ways to report what the students are doing that checks these boxes.”

What’s changing

Current high school students don’t have to worry about the new requirements. But kids starting high school next year and beyond will have to hit the marks. 

Kansas requires a minimum of 21 credits to graduate, while USD 259 requires 23 for most students. That won’t change, but the specific classes required will. 

One of the first differences Wichita students will see is a restructuring of physical education and health classes.  

Students may want to start thinking about prerequisite courses if they hope to satisfy their new STEM elective requirement with an advanced career and technical education class. The other option is taking a fourth math or science course. 

Many students may log enough postsecondary assets unintentionally by attending school or pursuing their goals and interests. But they and their counselors will need to check that they’re hitting the targets. 

A list of postsecondary assets from a presentation during Wichita Public Schools’ November school board meeting. (Screenshot)

For example, a student with at least a 90% high school attendance rate who joins two clubs would meet the graduation requirement. So would a student who completes a senior project/exit interview and scores at grade level or above on the state assessment that all students take. 

Making sure students hit the targets

Many of the items on the state’s list of assets are linked to positive outcomes for students, said Rife, the Wichita State professor. But requiring them for graduation may largely encourage schools to report what students are already doing.

“I can see what they were trying to attempt with it, and it’s not bad,” he said. “But it’s nothing that’s going to magically make for better high school graduates on the whole.”

Students from wealthier families may naturally hit more of the goals that are linked to socioeconomic status, such as higher test scores and preparation for college, he said. But the list of options is also so broad that most students will be able to find a workable option.

“The kids who are probably going to have the hardest time passing this are the kids who have terrible attendance,” he said. “A lot of this is going to be built into schools enough that if you come to school, you’ll get these taken care of.”

Rife said he’s nearly certain a school will figure out a way for a student to meet the postsecondary asset requirements if they’re otherwise prepared to graduate.

“There is no district,” he said, “that wants to report lower graduation rates.” 

In Wichita, the district is considering volunteer programs and helping students join clubs that meet during the school day, Hatfield, the assistant superintendent, said. 

To comply with the new graduation requirements, USD 259 is shifting course plans and policies, training counselors on the changes and creating a tracking system for the postsecondary assets, she said. The goal is for any effect on graduation rates to be positive. 

“Do we need to create something so that every single kid in Wichita Public Schools will for sure check that one off of the list?” Hatfield asked, naming exit interviews as one possibility. “Those are the things we’ve got to analyze (to) make sure that we don’t have kids falling through the cracks.”

The impact on students

The requirement to gain job skills during high school can help students explore various career paths, said G.A. Buie, executive director for the United School Administrators of Kansas and the Kansas School Superintendents’ Association. They may discover interests they didn’t know they had or rule out options before investing in expensive training or education. 

Buie said schools are generally satisfied with the changes because they had the chance to give input. He is “absolutely not” concerned that they’ll have a negative impact on students who are already struggling to meet graduation requirements.  

“Sometimes kids get locked into or feel like they have a singular path of going to college,” he said. “This opportunity … really pushes them out of their comfort zone or maybe forces them to move toward a passion.”

With the new requirements, Kansas joins other states that have allowed or required students to meet graduation standards through work experience, college preparation, capstone projects or other ways of demonstrating competence. 

The updated requirements reflect a decades-long trend of business and industry pushing for more influence on public schooling, Rife said. 

That attitude coexists alongside “older ideas of school as a place to learn about the world in order to enjoy living in it,” to be exposed to art and culture, to become an engaged citizen, to learn morals or even to save your soul, he said. 

Rife said too much focus on career preparation can have downsides, especially when combined with frequent testing. 

“It’s always been cool to not like school,” he said. “But I think schools have become more stressful for students. And I think learning has become less fun, less enjoyable and more like work, especially if the mentality is ‘We’re here to get you ready for work.’”

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon