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'One size doesn't fit all.' Should Florida widen the path to high school graduation?

Bills have been filed to create more "pathways" to a high school diploma. The proposals will be debated in the upcoming legislative session, but students have some ideas too.
Honors students at Middleton High view their diplomas after commencement at the Florida State Fairgrounds in 2017. Some Florida lawmakers are proposing bills that would broaden the ways students could graduate and still meet state standards.
Published Jan. 28

Twenty-four credits. A grade-point average of 2.0 or better. Passing scores on the state's Algebra I and 10th grade reading tests, or their alternatives.

Most Florida teenagers know that list: They're the requirements to earn a standard diploma from a public high school.

But are they the right ones?

For more than a decade, state lawmakers have discussed creating what they call 'alternate pathways' to get that document, which holds the key to joining the military, pursuing higher education, sometimes even getting a meaningful job.

Their rationale is simple.

"One size doesn't fit all," said state Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Citrus County Republican who chairs the House PreK-12 Innovation committee.

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Massullo filed a handful of bills in 2018 aimed at diminishing the importance of test results for graduation purposes, and amping up the value of industry certifications, which train students for work in fields like welding and health care. He said he anticipates trying to move similar legislation this spring — not to lower standards, but to offer other ways to prove teens have met them, such as through more "practical" courses.

"It's still a big goal of mine," Massullo said.

Newly elected Rep. Susan Valdes of Tampa, the ranking Democrat on Massullo's committee, has proposed a bill (HB 185) to establish test score substitutes for students who cannot pass any of the versions currently allowed. Valdes suggests teens could use a higher grade-point average or an industry certification to receive the equivalent of a GED.

"We have students that have industry certifications and can't get a job. That one test will stop that young adult from moving forward," she said.

By taking away a test, she said, "we're not hurting a kid. We're making a life-changing decision for a young adult."

Other proposals include requiring all high schools to employ at least one academic advisor to inform students with a GPA under 2.0 about alternative career pathways and graduation options, and to allow middle and high schools to adopt a "mastery based" program with alternative methods to assign course grades and credits.

Teens have some strong views on what approach lawmakers should take if they intend to enact changes.

Nearly 20 students from three area high schools interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times said they would not change the GPA or credit requirements.

"If you don't have a 2.0, that means you don't come to school," said Kevin Bolling, a senior at Anclote High in Pasco County. "When they don't come, they don't know anything on the test. It's the kids' fault."

"I feel it's a general easy requirement if you try," said Mackenzie Agostinelli, a junior at East Lake High in Pinellas County, echoing the personal responsibility theme that many students sounded, regardless of their own personal grades in school.

They suggested that getting the needed credits and GPA shouldn't be a problem, between teachers' help, offerings like "credit recovery" courses, and courses at all levels that, to some, are too easy.

Test scores were a different matter, though. Angostelli was not alone in her view that "it's unfair to define a student by a test score." Anxiety and stress can hurt students who otherwise know the material and perform well in classes, many of the teens said.

"I'm not a good test taker," admitted Torian Hawkins, a senior at Sickles High in Hillsborough County.

She said she worried that people put too much emphasis on test results, sometimes to the detriment of even perfect grades.

"Maybe they can make it more flexible for actual student situations," Hawkins said. "And there are so many situations."

One that several students suggested would be worthy of attention is the language of the tests. They noted that Florida attracts families from all over the world, and many come not speaking English.

Yet they are tested in English only. Think of it as trying to learn math in Chinese the day after you move from Florida to China.

The students wondered: Is the state trying to test their language skills, or their knowledge?

"Kids have to be constantly translating," said Moises Robles, an Anclote High senior who moved to Pasco County from Puerto Rico a year ago.

He said native-language tests would be a valuable reform, and several others agreed.

Lawmakers also should consider the needs of students who are not necessarily on a STEM career path, which seems to be the dominant emphasis, said Anneliese Cotroneo, a Sickles High junior.

She said she loves dance and theater, and has begun a small business in those areas. Perhaps, she said, the state could create a path that gets people like her to a diploma without having to endure high-level math and science courses they will never use again.

"I wish there were more programs that would aid me in business and entrepreneurship, and I wish they could go to a diploma," Cotroneo said, suggesting financial literacy as a possible replacement for a math requirement.

Dayli Ramirez, an Anclote High senior, concurred that the state might want to take a closer look at the lives students lead after graduation.

"Outside of high school it's a whole different level that we're not taught," Ramirez said. "We're sitting on the edge of graduating, and I'm completely lost. … They teach you so many things that in a month I don't remember. They don't teach you reality."

She and others supported using industry certifications as alternatives to specific course requirements, if they cover similar material in a more useful way.

"The certification idea could be implemented, as long as it's still achieving the same goals as the end-of-the-year test," said Matt Trotto, an East Lake High junior who deemed Florida's graduation expectations "fair" overall.

Counselors should also be helping students to know what pathways are available, and guiding them to ones that make sense for the future, Trotto said.

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"There should be some sort of way to tell a student, 'We've seen your past records, and we don't think this course will be good for you,' helping them succeed at what they can succeed in," he added.

Education experts say flexibility makes sense.

If a student can't demonstrate his or her abilities in the usual ways, "it's important to have other ways to demonstrate their ability to understand the standards shown on a test," said Martha Thurlow, director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota.

"When you think about kids, they're not black and white. There's a range of ways in which students interact with the content knowledge they should have to exit school," said Thurlow, who wrote about the issue as far back as 2005.

"It's important to have alternatives," she said. "It's also important that those alternatives meet the same standards. How you judge whether they meet the same standards is where the difficult part comes in."

Valdes, the state representative, suggested Florida owes it to students to find a way.

"It's just giving the students the pathway to go live their lives," she said.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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