Lawmakers approve major changes in graduation requirements, online university

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauApril 13, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- A bill that would revamp high school graduation requirements, integrate more technology into the curriculum and make dramatic changes to the state university system is headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk.

On Friday, the House voted unanimously to support a proposal that would create two distinct designations for high school diplomas: one for college-bound students seeking an academic challenge and one for students headed into the workforce.

The sweeping education bill would also designate a "preeminent research university" based on student performance, retention rates,

research spending, national rankings and endowment size, among other factors. Those universities would receive additional money to create an online learning institute.

"This is a transformational bill," House Speaker Will Weatherford said after the vote. "It's one that will change the trajectory of the education system."

The bill passed in the Senate by a 33-7 vote Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Scott said he was reviewing the bill.

School superintendents across the state support the move, in part because the current class of high school freshman are facing challenging new graduation requirements. Some districts have expressed concerns that tougher standards will prevent thousands of students from earning a diploma.

There's also a philosophical argument: Studies have shown that students are more engaged in their schoolwork when they can connect the lessons to a potential career.

"If students are involved in a program of study that they choose and that is thematically relevant, their chances of success are greatly enhanced and graduation rates increase," Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.

Carvalho called the legislative proposal a "thoughtful, measured and balanced approach to ensuring accountability, while taking away the onus of high-stakes over-testing."

If the proposal were to become law, the requirements for earning a standard diploma in Florida would change dramatically. Students would still have to pass an end-of-course exam in algebra and a standardized test in language arts. But they would no longer have to pass end-of-course exams in geometry and biology. Instead, those exams would count for 30 percent of a student's final grade in that subject.

A passing score on the biology exam would be necessary only for students wishing to add a new "scholar" designation to their diploma. Those students would also have to pass the algebra II exam, earn two credits in a foreign language and enroll in at least one college-level class, among other more rigorous requirements.

Students could also opt to add a "merit" designation to their diploma by earning industry certification in a field such as automotive technology.

The proposal doesn't require students to choose a designation, nor does it set a deadline for students to make a decision. And a "scholar" designation wouldn't guarantee acceptance into college, just as a "merit" designation wouldn't preclude a student from pursuing an advanced degree.

"The whole purpose of this bill is to connect the skills of our students with the needs of our employers, and to recognize that not every student in the state of Florida is going to go to college," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Subcommittee.

Adkins rebuffed concerns that the measure would create a "sub-class" of diplomas.

"It's the same standard high school diploma for both of these designations," she said. "Regardless of which designation is on their diploma, [students] are going to be college-ready."

When the proposal first surfaced earlier this year, it met some resistance from the Foundation for Florida's Future, former Gov. Jeb Bush's education think tank. Executive Director Patricia Levesque opposed dropping geometry from the graduation requirements, and voiced concerns about creating a watered-down path to graduation.

But a foundation spokeswoman noted that many changes had been made since those early committees.

"This bill will help ensure students leave more equipped for success beyond the K-12 classroom, whether that setting is college, the military or an industry of their choosing," Levesque said in a statement.

Pinellas Superintendent Mike Grego said the state had been trying to fit all students into a narrow path to graduation, something that didn't give school districts flexibility. He considers the various designations a step in the right direction, he said.

Grego also said it was a "huge win" to make end-of-course exams a part of a student's final grade rather than pass-fail tests.

As for the higher education provisions, the universities designated as "preeminent" would receive additional money to create an online school. Universities meeting most of the standards for preeminence would get money to create a master's program in cloud computing and establish an entrepreneurs-in-residence program.

The proposal also lays the groundwork for funding Florida's colleges and universities based on performance, rather than enrollment. And it would exempt colleges and universities from the state caps on bonuses and severance pay.

Last year, Scott vetoed legislation that would have allowed preeminent state research universities to raise tuition and fees at differentiated rates each academic year. But House Higher Education Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanette Nuñez has said she expects this year's version to become law because it doesn't have that provision.

Nuñez, a Miami Republican, called the bill "a catalyst for innovation."

"It's going to put our universities on a path to really excel and to compete for the best and the brightest," she said.

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