Last week, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education called an emergency meeting to consider waivers of state graduation requirements for the Class of 2022. Current graduation requirements, in place for well over a decade, require students to score an “Approaching Basic” level – two full levels below what is considered proficient – on one English, one math, and either a science or social studies LEAP end-of-course test. The expectation is an incredibly low one, given that state education leaders have indicated that students need to score “Mastery” to demonstrate proficiency, remain “on grade level,” and ultimately, graduate ready for college and careers without the need for remediation. Currently, just 45 percent of Louisiana public high school students are performing at proficient levels in English and reading, 30 percent in math, and 25 percent in science and social studies.

Materials supplied by the board pointed to COVID as the rationale for a proposed statewide waiver of graduation requirements for this year’s seniors, yet data supplied by the Louisiana Department of Education indicated that the percentage of current seniors not meeting graduation requirements is roughly on par with those not meeting the requirement in 2019 pre-COVID. Individuals and organizations providing public testimony questioned the need for a waiver and asked whether the 2,400 impacted students were provided required remediation, opportunities for credit recovery, and other academic interventions throughout their senior year using an extra $4 billion in COVID recovery funds. No such information was available. Questions surfaced about what the impact of any graduation requirement waivers on school accountability would be. The Department reported that, due to federal regulations, any student awarded a diploma – even with a waiver – must be counted in the school’s performance score and accountability rating, thereby giving points to schools for kids not graduating career and college ready. The board voted to reject the proposal, by a vote of 5-3.

Minutes later, the board moved to consider a second agenda item specific to Hurricane Ida-related impacts on students attending public high schools in Terrebonne Parish. With little discussion, a board member quickly made the motion to amend the proposal to apply to students attending all public high schools located in parishes included in Governor Edwards’ disaster declaration for Hurricane Ida. One board member asked how many parishes the declaration included, to which someone replied, “a few dozen.” No further questions were asked regarding the exact parishes included, the extent of hurricane damage in those impacted parishes, how many days schools were closed and how much instructional time was lost and made up in affected parishes, and how many students would be granted a diploma without meeting current graduation requirements. The entire discussion and consideration of the motion lasted just a few minutes, and the amended motion was approved without objection.

Four days later, the Department of Education revealed that 1,414 seniors in the 25 parishes included in the disaster declaration – out of the 2,400 seniors for whom the statewide graduation waiver was initially rejected – would receive a high school diploma even though they did not meet the requirements. At least 419 students waived are in schools that closed for one week or less. Three of those parishes only closed schools for one or two days. The Department further reported that it does not know the extent to which schools made up missed instructional days throughout the year, which is very likely given that the storm happened in the first few weeks of the school year. The Department also does not know how many of these students received required remediation, were enrolled in credit recovery and took a full course load during their senior year. Yet the board voted to waive graduation requirements with none of this discussed.

In a state where so few high school students are graduating below proficient levels in core academic subjects, 10,000 students per year enter college requiring remedial courses in math, and 4,000 students in English, state policymakers should be extremely cautious about waiving academic standards. A high school diploma certifies to students, their families, colleges, and employers that students have learned basic skills needed to be successful in their postsecondary endeavors. It’s not a participation trophy based on simply attending school for 12-13 years. To award a diploma to students who have failed to demonstrate that they’ve learned those skills isn’t doing them any favors; it’s a disservice. It’s lying to them. The post-secondary education, training, and job market to which they’re transitioning isn’t getting any easier or less demanding. They will struggle as a result of being pushed out without any support. Their lack of basic skills will become someone else’s problem, either higher education’s or taxpayers’ when they can’t earn even a basic postsecondary credential and land a good-paying job to support their family. Also, the value of the Louisiana standard diploma will be diminished.

Every bit of student achievement data shows that Louisiana still has a lot of work to do to prepare its students to be truly “college and career ready.” Despite years of incremental progress, our public education system remains at the bottom of states nationally. Our children will rise to the expectations we set for them. Let’s not be so quick to lower or waive them and expect that things will change for the better.