TALLAHASSEE -- What if high school were less like an assembly line and more like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel?
State lawmakers are considering a proposal that would let students pick from three different diploma designations, each with its own set of graduation requirements. One would be designed for students planning to go directly into the workforce. College-bound teenagers would have their own pathway, as would high-achievers with post-graduate studies in mind.
Superintendents say the move would keep students engaged in their studies, and provide them with the technical training they need for high-demand jobs.
But critics consider the proposal a blatant effort to water down the state graduation requirements.
One factor clearly helping drive the decision: This year’s high-school freshmen are the first who need to pass a trio of challenging state exams to graduate. Some district officials have said the requirement is too tough, and will prevent thousands of Florida students from earning a diploma.
“We really believe it’s going to be a difficult scenario for our students,” Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia recently told a House education panel.
The graduation bill is the latest effort by Florida lawmakers to shake up the state’s secondary schools. Several laws have attempted to make the curriculum more challenging and relevant to students’ career goals. Other laws have phased out the old Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.
In 2010, the Legislature ushered in a new regime of standardized tests known as end-of-course exams. Three were designed as must-pass tests: Algebra I, Geometry and Biology.
This year’s freshmen are the first students saddled with the graduation requirement. That concerns superintendents, who point out that only 59 percent of test-takers passed the Algebra I exam last year.
“Right now, you and I know that there is the potential for a bottleneck effect for graduating students,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told state representatives in Tallahassee last month.
The bill under consideration in the state House would give students more flexibility. They would still have to pass the algebra test to earn a diploma. But only students choosing the “scholar” designation would be required to pass the geometry and biology exams. For other students, the tests would count as 30 percent of their final grade in that subject.
The proposal would also give students the freedom to take more electives. Students electing the diploma with an industry designation, for example, could take eight credits in a career-training program like automotive technology or hospitality in lieu of the physics and chemistry courses currently required.
Carvalho, the Miami-Dade superintendent, said the various “pathways” would help keep students engaged by connecting their studies to their interests and future plans.
“One of the most critical elements that leads to dropping out is that students are not seeing contextual relevance in their learning,” Carvalho said. “That needs to change.”
The House bill and a similar version in the Senate have been moving swiftly through their respective chambers. Both have the support of leadership and lawmakers with expertise in education.
“The concept is a great one,” said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican and assistant principal at Miami’s George T. Baker Aviation School. “What it does is make high school relevant to careers.”
But some provisions have been the subject of intense debate in Tallahassee.
Earlier this month, Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education think tank, tried to dissuade a House panel from dropping geometry from the graduation requirements. She urged lawmakers not to lower the standards, saying students in Florida had risen to previous challenges.
Her proof: Statewide graduation rates have risen steadily over the past decade.
Levesque also raised concerns with the different diploma designations.
“When you set those low bars, the students that are going to be more often counseled into that diploma are our minority and underrepresented students,” she said.
Lawmakers insist there will still only be one standard diploma offered in Florida. It will just come in three equally rigorous varieties.
And Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, denied that the bill would water down the curriculum.
“This whole approach is not… retreating, not backing down,” said Montford, who is also CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “It’s a tweaking and a better alternative for a lot of our students.”
Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego, who pitched a similar proposal earlier this year, agreed.
“Right now, if you don’t pass an end-of-course exam, you don’t graduate,” Grego said. “It shouldn’t be an-all-or-nothing thing.”
Those who stand to be most affected might not get a say in the political process. Most are busy preparing for finals.
But Lina Zuluaga, a 16-year-old student at Michael Krop Senior High in Northeast Miami-Dade, said students would welcome the opportunity to custom-design their education.
“This would open a lot of doors,” she said.
Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.