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WJCC Schools challenged by new state graduation requirements

Jimmy LaRoue
Contact Reporterjlarouejr@vagazette.com

Local education officials say new state-mandated changes to graduation requirements that go into effect for the class of 2022 will pose a challenge for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, but will also make students more workforce and college ready.

The revised rules — known as the Profile of a Virginia Graduate — reduce the number of Standards of Learning tests students need to pass to earn a high school diploma, W-JCC assistant superintendent for school leadership Jeff Carroll said.

The new requirements also incorporate skills and attributes sought by state employers and colleges deemed critical to success in the workplace and in college, he said.

Currently, high school students need to pass nine SOL tests to earn an advanced diploma and six for a standard diploma. With the class of 2021-22, students will only have to pass five SOL tests to earn either diploma.

The skills, which the Virginia Board of Education refers to as the “Five C’s,” include creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship.

Superintendent Olwen Herron said implementing the changes will not be easy, but they will be worthwhile.

“I’m certainly excited about the fact that it’s not just about the test score anymore,” Herron said. “Even though it will be very complex to monitor and adjust and try to figure out if our students are meeting expectations, I think the fact that we’re wanting to take all these into place and make our students workforce ready is a step in the right direction.”

Carroll briefed the School Board on the changes to graduation requirements at its Dec. 12 meeting. The Virginia Board of Education approved the changes in November and they will begin with incoming ninth graders starting high school in fall 2018.

Specifically, the changes include:

  • Credits to a standard diploma remain at 22, but students must pass five SOL tests or other state-approved assessments, down from six — one each in English reading, English writing, math, science and history/social science.
  • Advanced studies diploma credits remain at 26, but students must now pass five SOL tests or state-approved assessments — one each in English reading, English writing, math, science and history/social science — instead of nine.
  • School divisions can offer their own performance-based assessment as an alternative to the English writing SOL test for awarding verified credit. A verified credit combines a passing grade in the class with a passing score on the end-of-course SOL or alternative assessment.
  • School divisions can also offer its own performance-based assessment for history/social science instead of the SOL test.

Under the new state standards, students will not have a specific activity to do, such as an internship, job-shadowing or career fair participation. However, school divisions are required to work with local employers to provide opportunities for students to learn about workplace expectations, no matter what they plan to do after high school.

W-JCC students will also have to understand and demonstrate civic responsibility and community engagement.

The state Board of Education did not outline what kind of career-related or civic activities students would need to accomplish to receive a diploma.

The state Board of Education has also updated school accreditation standards to give schools credit as students make progress in English and/or math proficiency, when previously those schools would have been perceived as failing. The new standards also reward schools for narrowing achievement gaps in English and math, and reducing absenteeism and dropout rates.

Also, beginning with the 2021-22 school year, high schools will be expected to meet goals for steering more students into advanced programs, career and technical education and service learning.

“So between the new Profile of a Virginia Graduate and the new accreditation standards, it’s going to be a little loosey-goosey,” School Board Chairwoman Kyra Cook (Williamsburg) said.

James Beers (Roberts-JCC) is concerned about late bloomers — those students who are unsure of their career and future path. He doesn’t think the new requirements accommodate them and they should be more flexible.

“Determining your career is different than preparing (students) for workplace readiness,” Carroll said. “I think that’s the idea of the five C’s. That just being aware of different careers and post-secondary opportunities, whether it’s going directly into the workplace, or for a variety of educational opportunities.”

Herron said skills will be transferable to different careers should a student change, and the school division is trying to open doors for students, not close them.

Lisa Ownby (Powhatan-JCC) said the requirements don’t seem rigid, and with less focus on SOLs, it will allow students to meet diverse workplace and career-readiness needs.

“I think this is what we’re looking for,” Ownby said.

More students graduate

A higher percentage of students graduated from Williamsburg-James City County’s three high schools in 2017, and a higher percentage also earned higher scores on the English portion of the SAT and ACT, though math scores dropped slightly.

In the most recently completed school year, 92.3 percent of students graduated within four years, up from 91.5 percent in 2016, said Scott Thorpe, also a W-JCC assistant superintendent for school leadership. And when those who received General Equivalency Diplomas are factored in, 94.3 percent graduated in 2017, up from 93.9 percent in 2016.

SAT scores rose from 566 to 576 in 2017 in reading, but they dropped in math from 567 to 560 in 2017. On the ACT, English and reading scores both rose — from 23.9 in 2016 to 24.4 in 2017, and from 24.7 to 25.1 in reading. Math and science ACT scores dropped slightly — from 24.3 in 2016 to 23.9 in math for 2017, and from 23.8 in 2016 to 23.7 in science for 2017.

On the Advanced Placement tests, 74 percent of W-JCC students received a three, four or five score; a three is the minimum score necessary to receive college credit for a particular course.

W-JCC students were also offered $25.9 million in scholarships or awards, up nearly $6 million from 2016.

LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342, by email at jlarouejr@vagazette.com or on Twitter @jlaroue.

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