Jeffco works to avoid potential ‘dead-ends’ of new state grad requirements

2021 graduates must achieve test scores, complete projects

Posted 12/4/19

When Arvada High junior Sebastian Owens takes the SAT this spring, he’s not only counting on scores good enough to get him into the college of his choice; he’s also hoping for math and English …

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Jeffco works to avoid potential ‘dead-ends’ of new state grad requirements

2021 graduates must achieve test scores, complete projects


When Arvada High junior Sebastian Owens takes the SAT this spring, he’s not only counting on scores good enough to get him into the college of his choice; he’s also hoping for math and English results that allow him to graduate.

He’s not too worried: Owens scored well on the PSAT, the practice for the college entrance exam. He’s a confident test-taker. And, he said, his years at Arvada High have prepared him for the test, which universities across the country include as part of their application and enrollment criteria.

“Our teachers have built things into class that have helped us later,” he said.

Even so, the test poses a challenge for many. The score required for Colorado students to graduate from high school in 2021 – a score of 970 – exceeds the average scores seen by nine Jeffco schools this year. 

The SAT is one of 12 ways to show proficiency in English and math, which the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) spent years selecting after the state General Assembly passed a 2008 law to change graduation requirements, said Robin Russel, graduation guidelines manager with the CDE. 

Other means of demonstration include college-level classes, extensive projects and different standardized tests, though districts can individually choose which of the 12 methods they will and will not accept.

Students who do not meet the new requirement by the end of their senior year will not receive a diploma until the requirement is fulfilled, Russel said, and will need to take a qualifying class or test the following summer or semester.

Previously, graduation requirements were almost completely set by individual districts. The only statewide requirement was that students complete a yearlong civics or government course, she said.

‘Open to the idea of improving’

The switch won’t take effect until 2021, but with logistics to work around and options to prepare, Jeffco has already spent years planning for the change, chief academic officer Matt Flores said.

Pomona High School principal Andy Geise and D’Evelyn High School principal Josh Griffin said at their schools, they have continually heightened their focus on preparing students for, and offering, multiple free possibilities.

“I don’t want a student who’s done all the right things to not graduate because they got a 460 on their English SATs,” Griffin said. “I remain hopeful that schools and districts will figure out pathways to help students.”

Since 2015, the state has administered the SAT to all juniors enrolled in a Colorado public school. Students can use this free option to fulfill the new requirement, if they score at least 470 in English and 500 in math, a 970 out of a maximum 1,600.

However, nine Jeffco high schools, including online and charter schools, saw juniors earn an average SAT score less than 970 this year. On average, juniors at Jefferson High School scored an 803 on their SATs, according to CDE data. Alameda International, Longview High School, Arvada High School, Jefferson County Open Secondary and Pomona High School also saw average scores below the new requirement.

Jeffco students have other options to show English and math proficiency, with some of them costlier than others. For instance, students can qualify for credit through a college-level exam, such as an AP (Advanced Placement) or IB (International Baccalaureate) exam, both of which typically cost $85 or more.

Cheaper options include the ACT or ACCUPLACER, and a free option via the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), administered by the United States Military Entrance Processing Command.

The goal is that, at every Jeffco school, there are “no dead-ends,” Geise said.

“Our community’s responding well” to the coming change, he said. “As long as there are options, I think everyone’s open to the idea of improving.”

Preparing every day

To prevent those dead-ends, Jeffco schools have bolstered SAT prep to improve student performance.

“The schools all have something in place, but the type of prep varies depending on the school,” said district curriculum director Jef Fugita. 

Additionally, all students gain experience by taking the PSAT once in ninth grade and once in 10th, he said. Statewide, students can access free SAT prep help through online education provider Khan Academy.

Meanwhile, at a number of Jeffco schools, SAT prep doesn’t look like an after-school class or dedicated study time; rather, students prepare for the test every day through in-class assignments.

“It’s all integrated into our curriculum. We use the actual test and test prep materials to inform the assessments we provide our students,” said Brandon Brekke, Evergreen High School principal.

While this is especially true of math and English classes, it extends to all classes at the school, he said. “Social studies and art classes support writing skills, the science department includes some questions,” he said. “I feel our school will be prepared for the change.”

Another alternative

For those who do not meet requirements through testing, there’s the capstone option, which some Jeffco schools have spent years creating and implementing. 

To receive capstone credit, students must complete a project to be graded by school staff, said Vernon Whittington, Arvada High’s capstone director. The district has provided input on project grading rubrics to ensure they qualify for state credit.

How students prepare for those projects differs from school to school, with most schools offering a class to guide capstone work. At Arvada High, which introduced its version of the capstone this year, the class is a four-years-long endeavor – and every student is required to take it.

“We believe that was the most equitable way to roll something like this out,” said assistant principal Jasmine Silverman. By requiring all students to take the capstone, the school ensures that no student finds themselves without a method by which to graduate come senior year.

Through the project, students have free rein to explore what is important to them, from “what it means to be a history teacher to building a model laser,” Silverman said.

Junior Josiah Ornelas chose to center his project around coaching, inspired by his experience as an assistant coach to the basketball team, he said. While he plans to achieve a qualifying SAT score, he said the capstone class has provided important career exploration opportunities.

“We’ve built up our resumes, which showed us what experience we had,” he said, “and through my project, I’m getting used to coaching and helping out the players.”

Not all schools require every student to take a capstone class, but administrators are finding other ways to make sure no one slips through the cracks. 

D’Evelyn offers one-on-one support to ensure every student has a graduation plan. Pomona periodically offers the ASVAB to students. And many districts are working on creating a summer capstone course, which students could take directly after their senior year to meet the requirement, Russel said.

That variety of solutions, and the time spent putting them in place, shows the dedication of Jeffco staff to helping students graduate, Flores said.

“This is the first class to have these requirements, so we’ll have a good sense” of how efforts have helped by 2021, he said. “I feel confident the students will be able to meet the requirements.”


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