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Exploring the Implications of Increasing Credit Requirements for High School Graduation in Washington

By Havala Hanson | January 25, 2021


Havala Hanson
Havala Hanson is the former research operations manager at Education Northwest. Her research interests include student pathways through high school, college, and the workforce; educator career pathways; education systems and policies; and closing achievement and opportunity gaps.

What happens to students when a state increases the number of laboratory science, fine arts, and world languages credits they need to earn to graduate from high school?

A new REL Northwest study (which has an accompanying infographic) found little impact on student outcomes in Washington districts that increased these graduation credit requirements–as long as schools had adequate facilities, faculty, and scheduling flexibility to expand curricula.

However, the study findings revealed challenges for some student groups. For example, compared with 81 percent of former English learner students and 78 percent of students who were never English learners, just 53 percent of current English learner students met the increased credit requirement for world languages.

This study finding aligns with a prior REL Northwest study that found that English learner students are often not able to access opportunities for advanced courses or college-preparatory classes, as well as another REL Northwest study that found lower high school graduation rates for students who were ever English learners compared with students who were never English learners.

In addition, the 2020 study found that students attending high-poverty schools met Washington state's increased high school graduation credit requirements less often than other student groups. Specifically, only 21 percent of students in these schools met the increased credit requirement for laboratory science (compared with 79 percent of students attending low-poverty schools).

Although these findings are concerning, they can also be a jumping-off point for positive change; school and district leaders can take action based on the data presented in the REL Northwest study. Leaders in Washington state may want to consider these next steps.

To help current English learner students meet the increased credit requirement for world languages:

  • Create environments in which English learner students can master English while earning all the credits they need to graduate.
  • Give English learner students the opportunity to take a proficiency test in their home language to earn world languages credits.
  • Ensure English learner students can attend credit-bearing classes, rather than limiting students to English as a Second Language classes that do not count toward graduation requirements.

To help students attending high-poverty schools meet the increased credit requirement for laboratory science:

  • Offer required courses at different times during the school day so that students do not have to “sacrifice” earning certain credits due to scheduling conflicts. For example, if a school offers just one fine arts class and one laboratory science class, ensure the classes are held at different times.
  • Determine the number of certified science teachers in schools—and then determine the number of students served by that teacher or those teachers in a year. Doing so will help school and district leaders decide whether more certified science teachers should be hired to help ensure all students can earn the increased laboratory science credits required for high school graduation.
  • Examine equity in access to science laboratory space and equipment both in and across schools.

The REL program is dedicated to working with education stakeholders to ensure equitable opportunities and outcomes for all students. To that end, REL Northwest can work with school and district leaders in the region to develop an action plan that incorporates some or all of the suggested steps listed above to help students access equitable opportunities related to the increased high school graduation credit requirements.