BILOXI —The 2018-19 class of freshmen in Mississippi public schools could be the first to be offered new diploma options, officials announced Thursday.

The State Board of Education approved the first step in revamping diploma options available to high school graduates during its monthly board meeting held here.

If approved, high school seniors will graduate with a new traditional diploma with new course requirements. The Mississippi Department of Education also will offer diploma endorsements in academic, distinguished academic and career and technical categories. Students with significant cognitive disabilities who are unable to earn a traditional diploma will have the option of an alternate diploma, officials said.

“The proposed diploma options will give students more opportunities to demonstrate their strengths and achievements and will clearly communicate that they are well equipped for their next stage in life,” state superintendent of education Carey Wright said in a release.

“These options will provide all students, including students with disabilities, with meaningful opportunities to succeed.”

The state currently has five diploma options for students. Those include career pathway, district option, early exit exam, traditional pathway and the Mississippi Occupation Diploma option, only available for students with special needs.

A Senate bill passed during the 2017 legislative session did away with both the career pathway and occupational diploma options, beginning in the upcoming school year.

Students who are sophomores, juniors, or seniors during the 2018-19 school year will finish out their high school careers with the existing diploma options, MDE executive director of secondary education Jean Massey told reporters during a conference call on Monday. Students on the occupational diploma track need parental permission to continue with that option, according to the release.

Each of the new options require a minimum of 24 to 28 Carnegie credits. One Carnegie unit equates 120 hours of class or contact time with an instructor over the course of a year at a high school level.

For a traditional diploma, students need to meet the Carnegie unit requirement in English, math, science, social studies, physical education, technology, art and health throughout their high school career. Students also will be required to take a college and career readiness course within one semester of graduation.

“The diploma endorsement options will encourage students take advantage of their senior year in high school to earn a credential that will benefit them in college, postsecondary training or the workforce,” Wright said in the release.

Each new option is based on the proposed traditional diploma:

  • The Traditional diploma requires four credits in English and math, respectively. Students also need to take 3.5 credits in social studies, 3 credits in science, .5 credits each in physical education and health, and one credit each in art, career and college readiness, and technology. Additionally, students need 5.5 elective credits.
  • Academic endorsement: Students need a total of 26 Carnegie units and an minimum overall GPA of 2.5. The curriculum is similar to the traditional diploma option, but requires two extra electives.
  • Distinguished academic endorsement: Requires a minimum 3.0 overall GPA and requires 28 units, including one subject titled “Capstone Experience.” This endorsement requires 8 electives.
  • Alternate diploma: Students with significant cognitive disabilities can earn this diploma by taking alternate courses in English, math, and other subjects, but will also take career readiness and life skills development courses. Officials stressed that an alternate diploma is not equivalent to a traditional one, and is not recognized by post-secondary institutions that require a traditional diploma.
  • Career and technical endorsement: Requires all of the same course credits as the traditional diploma, but adds four career and technical electives (CTE) and only requires 3.5 electives. To earn the endorsement, students need a total of 26 Carnegie credits, an overall GPA of 2.5,  and a “silver” level on the ACT WorkKeys assessment, an exam created by ACT, Inc. which measures skills employers value in the workplace. Students also need to complete either one dual-credit CTE, pass a “career pathway experience,” or earn a national credential approved by the board.

Students can earn more than one endorsement, and need to pick which track they would like to pursue before they begin ninth grade.

With both the academic and distinguished academic endorsements, students must take courses that meet the Institutions of Higher Learning college preparatory curriculum requirements. Students are also required to complete either one AP course and exam, one IB course and exam, or one dual-credit course. For the academic endorsement, a grade of “C” or higher is required in the dual-credit course; for distinguished academic, students need a “B” or higher.

The academic endorsement requires students to earn the IHL and community college readiness benchmark, and the distinguished endorsement requires them to earn national college readiness benchmarks set by the ACT or SAT.

Massey told the board the proposed career and college readiness course will educate students about  presentation skills, personal finance, how to apply for federal student aid and understand the responsibility of credit cards and student loans, among other topics.

MDE also recommends all students should take a math or math-equivalent course during their senior year of high school so the subject matter is still fresh in their minds as they enter postsecondary education, Massey said

Students who have an individualized education program, called an IEP, have the option to graduate with a traditional diploma, alternate diploma, or certificate of completion.

State director of special education Gretchen Cagle told the board the certificate of completion is reserved specifically for students with disabilities who cannot meet the requirements for a traditional diploma and reach the “maximum age of service” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is 20.

“We have a certificate of completion now, and we really can’t see a way of getting rid of it altogether because we do have students who have such unique situations going on,” Cagle said. “They need the ability to exit high school … and be able to walk with their peers and do all of those things that, you know, show respect and dignity and honor their time that they have spent in school.”

Cagle said the vast majority of students with IEPs should be working towards a traditional, not alternate diploma. The alternate option was designed for the roughly one percent of IEP students who have significant cognitive disabilities, she said.

The next step in this process is for the board to open a 30-day public comment period for people to provide input on the new diploma options.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.