Deal, Woods both back changes to state graduation requirements

Georgia’s high school graduation requirements — which include four credits of math, four of English and four in science — are among the toughest in the country.

And the state’s four-year graduation rate is mediocre, only around 70 percent.

Now, two prominent Republicans running for statewide office — Gov. Nathan Deal and school superintendent candidate Richard L. Woods — are calling for changes to those requirements.

Deal has said he’d like computer programming to serve as one of the core courses required for graduation, substituting for a math or science course or even taking the place of one of the foreign language classes colleges and universities expect incoming students to have passed. And during a televised debate on Sunday, Woods said he’d like the state to consider substituting a class like journalism or accounting for one of the math requirements.

Woods, who taught and served as a school administrator in Irwin County, later clarified that to mean having the journalism class substitute for an English credit and the accounting course replace a math credit.

Either way, his message and the governor’s are the same: Georgia should consider changing its requirements for graduation.

“I believe this could open some options for many students (potential drop-outs and special needs),” Woods wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It would move us away from the one size fits all mentality and maintain a high degree of standards for our children.”

Neither the superintendent nor the governor would, on their own, be able to change the graduation requirements.

The state Board of Education has the final say. But the board’s members are appointed by the governor, and the superintendent has the authority to present policy proposals to the board.

Any proposed change to graduation requirements would likely be a hot topic in a state where students’ performance often trails that of their peers across the country.

Woods’ Democratic opponent, Valarie Wilson, said she doesn’t like the idea of moving away from requiring four math credits. She cited the fact that Georgia’s students have struggled in math.

Indeed, the mean math score of Georgia students on the SAT — 485 of a possible 800 — was 27 points lower than the national mean math score, according to 2014 figures from the College Board, which administers the SAT.

Overall, Georgia’s mean score of 1445 was 52 points lower than the national mean score of 1497.

Mike Light, spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia, said the system would be open to a discussion about changes to the graduation requirements that includes the General Assembly, the governor, the state Board of Education and education leaders throughout the state.

“What we would not want to see is lowering the standards or expectations for students striving for high school graduation and college or careers,” Light said.

It is not clear that requiring four credits of math, four of English and four of science automatically leads to better-prepared students.

But the requirements do appear to affect Georgia’s comparatively low graduation rate.

Seven of the 16 states whose data and education trends are tracked by the Southern Regional Education Board do not require four credits each of math, English and science for graduation. Georgia’s four-year graduation rate of 70 percent in 2011-2012 was lower than five of those states, and the other two — Kentucky and Oklahoma — had requested a waiver to get more time to compile their graduation data, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said adjusting the requirements wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea.

“It might have some potential if it was an engaging option for students and made them realize the connection between high school courses and their next phase of life,” he said.

By Wayne Washington
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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