The state Board of Education on Thursday approved the Hawaii Department of Education’s request to waive high school graduation credit requirements for seniors primed to graduate this year.

The decision is aimed at avoiding further disruption to an already calamitous spring quarter due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This action will allow the Class of 2020 graduates to proceed with post-secondary educational and workforce opportunities without unnecessary delays,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto wrote to the board in advance of its meeting.

There are 11,183 high school seniors in Hawaii, according to the DOE. About 90% are on track and ready to graduate while another 10% need to submit additional work or may need extended support into the summer or into the following academic year.

“We need this flexibility right now,” Kishimoto told the board Thursday during the teleconferenced meeting.

Department of Education board meeting.
The Board of Education typically meets in the DOE building on Miller Street, pictured here, but due to social distancing mandates it met via teleconference on Thursday to vote on approving the DOE’s request for a waiver to high school graduation requirements. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Under current Board of Education policy, students must obtain a minimum 24 credits in order to receive a high school diploma.

Hawaii’s public schools will be on extended break through at least April 30, although schools are still providing ungraded, enrichment learning activities for students, delivered online or through paper packets.

The DOE did not provide details of the waiver on Thursday, raising questions from some board members. Kishimoto said further details will be rolled out to schools and the public by next week.

The superintendent did say that the credit requirements waiver will relate to the calculation of grades and GPA in the fourth quarter — which was to have begun March 23 and end May 28 — any changes to students’ Early College participation, CTE course requirements and AP testing, among other things.

Schools will assess seniors’ readiness to graduate based on third-quarter grades, categorizing students into four groups, according to a DOE press release. Those on track to graduate based on those grades will receive a diploma while students not meeting proficiency will be “targeted for intervention and remediation to help them graduate on time” based on individual school plans, the release said.

Some seniors have already been notified of their acceptance into colleges.

BOE student member Daniella White, a senior at James Campbell High School, noted that many college acceptance decisions are based off of high school transcripts through the third quarter of senior year.

But White raised a concern about the approximately 1,100 high school seniors — about 10% — who are not on track to graduate and what the DOE will do to ensure they’re not slipping through the cracks.

“If they’re not going to college, for some students that one quarter can be really, really important for them,” she noted.

Kishimoto said the DOE cannot make up 27 to 47 instructional days by extending the school year — something that would cost $7 million a day to sustain, she said.

“This is cost-prohibitive and we’re very confident our teachers and school teams can use third-quarter grades to put in alternative graduation requirements,” she said.

Other school districts around the country have moved toward relaxing graduation requirements as schools have been shut down due to COVID-19. What that means varies from district to district, but could range from lowering the number of required credits or opting for a pass-fail option rather than letter grades.

Some board members questioned the lack of transparency behind the Hawaii DOE’s request for a waiver when no details had been provided ahead of their vote Thursday.

“In short, a high school graduation diploma must have the same meaning in these extraordinary times,” said board member Bruce Voss. “We’re being asked to vote on this before we even see this, we don’t know.”

Nonetheless, all nine voting members of the board approved the DOE’s request for a waiver of high school graduation requirements.

The board also discussed how the relaxed credit requirements might impact other students like freshmen, sophomores and juniors whose letter grades typically signify whether they’re ready to advance on to the next level, whether in math or a language course, for instance.

Students lineup before Roosevelt High School graduation ceremony. 30 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The DOE said it will issue a decision by April 15 about commencement exercises. Pictured here is Roosevelt High School’s 2015 graduation ceremony. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Board member Nolan Kawano said he was concerned that if a student who’d only learned three-fourths of subject matter was to be graded only up to that point for the rest of the year, but automatically advance to the next level next academic year, that their “performance may suffer as a result.”

Even without the possibility of graded material, Kishimoto said, students will be expected to be in touch with their teachers: “There is a responsibility for keeping in touch with your teacher and submitting whatever your teacher has designed as instructional model to remain in good standing. There’s still accountability students have,” she said.

The DOE has not issued any updates regarding holding high school graduation ceremonies, typically in mid to late May. The DOE has said it will make a decision about commencement exercises by April 15.

The board also voted to approve the department’s submission to the U.S. Department of Education to waive standardized testing for the rest of the academic year.

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