As students and teachers settle in for another school year (filled with a variety of reforms, as we highlight in this month’s education package), a fair question might be: What exactly does it mean to have a Colorado high school diploma? Although districts can set their own standards higher than state requirements, graduation is currently a reflection of credit hours earned—not content learned. The apparent problem with this “butts in seats” philosophy? More than a third of our state’s 11th graders cannot meet the minimum academic entrance requirements for career-level military or remediation-free college.

The state is hoping to change that statistic with new high school graduation guidelines, adopted in May, that will take full effect when current fifth graders don caps and gowns in 2021 (to provide time for early intervention and parent education). Rebecca Holmes, the Colorado Department of Education’s associate commissioner for innovation, choice, and engagement, says that expectations of graduates used to be tiered on job complexity—a broken system now that math, literacy, and critical thinking skills are in high demand across sectors. “It’s not your grandpa’s vocational tech versus college skills environment anymore,” Holmes says.

Unlike some states, which have a single exit exam to determine graduation readiness, the CDE is working to refine a menu of options for students to demonstrate both “21st century skills” and minimum competency levels in math, English, science, and social studies. The current version includes SAT, ACT, and TCAP scores, Advanced Placement classes, and verified capstones (special thesis-type projects). “We want students to know their diploma means they’re ready for their next step,” Holmes says, “whether it be a career, the military, or college.”

What’s Next?
The CDE is working on criteria, recently adopted by the State Board of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, for a Postsecondary Workforce Readiness Endorsed Diploma, which will guarantee graduates admission to lower-tier public institutions in Colorado.

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Follow copy chief Jessica Farmwald on Twitter at @JessicaKF.