A science classroom in a high school New Haven
A science classroom in New Haven
A science classroom in New Haven

State lawmakers are still looking for a way to implement a sweeping and expensive law they passed five years ago to boost high school graduation requirements.

The higher standards included additional credits in mathematics, science and foreign language, and required students to either pass end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry, biology, American history and English or complete a senior project.

Implementation of the legislation has been delayed twice because of lack of state and federal funding, and now some say the requirements are outdated.

The reform bill was passed as part of Connecticut’s bid to land federal money through the Race to the Top competition, a federal initiative to give states incentives to make certain education reforms. Forty-one other states competed for the federal dollars, and 18 received funds.

Connecticut did not receive any grant money, and without funding implementation of the bill was put off, first in 2012 and again in the last legislative session.

In an effort to move the reform effort forward, lawmakers, in enacting the latest delay, tacked on a task force study to determine whether the added requirements still make sense.

The nine-member task force, led by Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association for Public School Superintendents, has until Jan. 1 to recommend to the legislature whether to delay further or, if not, how to move forward with reforms, which are now scheduled to come into effect for the 2021 graduating class.

“The agreement around the table was that the increase in the requirements would not occur unless we got the Race to the Top money, and if it did not come through, the state would provide the money. Well, Race to the Top didn’t come through and neither did the state,” Cirasuolo said. “Our job is to figure out that, if we’re going to put money in, that we have the requirements right.”

A fiscal analysis in 2010 estimated that districts would need to hire 380 additional teachers at a price tag of up to $21 million to meet the added requirements.

Currently, 65% of school districts in Connecticut do not meet the requirements in the original legislation.

Without federal or state funding, Cirasuolo said, the costs of any task force recommendations the state adopts as law could fall on local school districts. 

“It’s not as if local districts have money to spend either,” Cirasuolo said. “The local districts say the state should pay for it.”

Cirusuolo and other education leaders have suggested that the proposed requirements are outdated, and that more credits will not necessarily mean better students.

“Even if the money were there tomorrow, the present requirements are only good for high schools in the 20th century. Now we’re in the 21st century. Now it’s more than money,” Cirusuolo said.

“One of the reasons there is hesitation right now is that ‘more credits means better graduation’ is not as clear-cut as when the bill was introduced five years ago,” said Larry Schaefer, senior staff associate of the Connecticut Association for Public School Superintendents.

Schaefer and Cirusuolo both support a “mastery-based approach” for educating high school students. This approach might include creating pathways for students to quickly move through content if they prove mastery, and, conversely, lengthening the school day or year to allow students more time to master the content if they fall behind.

Additionally, a mastery-based approach requires students to perform well above a passing D- grade for a class.  A’s or B’s would be required for a student to move through content.

“Until you master the content, you stay in the content,” Schaefer said.

Vincent Mustaro, senior staff associate for Policy Services at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said the legislation should be rethought to not simply increase graduation requirements, but to allow students more personalized options for achieving them.

“The high school setup goes back to the industrial age, and it is clearly an older model, and society is changing. We’re an information-based society,” Mustaro said.

However, Schaefer said that CAPSS would like to give schools incentives to adopt a mastery-based model rather than create new state law to require it.

Task force meetings will be held between Aug. 25 and Jan. 1, and will be open to the public.

Despite the arduous task of reformatting a controversial education overhaul in just four months, Cirusuolo is confident that his task force can finally set Connecticut’s graduation requirements on the right path.

“The requirements got put in place about three years ago, and a lot of things have happened since then. We have a better understanding of the Common Core, and there are more and more high schools offering credits based less on seat time and more on mastery. We know more now,” Cirusuolo said. “I’m excited the legislature will support us. We’re going to take advantage of this opportunity.”

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