Ensuring Equitable Pathways for the Class of 2020 Amid the Coronavirus

An empty high school classroom in Lakewood, Colorado, March 16, 2020.

The novel coronavirus has created significant issues in the education system, shuttering schools for the rest of the school year and creating a new normal for students around the world. COVID-19 has especially affected the high school class of 2020 in terms of learning, graduation requirements, and postsecondary enrollment. To help high school students and families better navigate this new reality, it’s important that states and districts offer clear and easily accessible guidance on how they will prepare students for their postsecondary pathway.

Despite states’ and districts’ scramble to support students remotely throughout the pandemic, CAP’s findings show that there currently aren’t enough established policies and practices on how high school students will continue learning, graduate, and then transition to college, military, or work. Unfortunately, these gaps in guidance likely will disproportionately affect marginalized communities such as students from families with low-incomes, English language learners, students with disabilities, and first-generation college students. This column outlines the state and institutional policies for learning and graduation requirements that are inclusive of these communities, potentially minimizing inequities to make it easier for students to transition out of high school. While state implementation will ultimately dictate how successful these policies will be, other states can learn some lessons from these examples.

Ensure high school students continue learning

Despite school closures, high school students must continue learning in order to follow their chosen postsecondary pathway. According to the authors’ analysis, 42 states offer specific, nuanced guidance on continuous learning, but more students could benefit if states mandate that the plans meet minimum guidelines.

States such as Alabama, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Washington provide guidance to districts to develop and implement plans with various remote learning options to ensure continued instruction. The states all recommend that districts offer multiple instructional delivery options; use established remote service providers to ensure student privacy; provide guidance on consistent communication with families; and offer specific resources for English language learners and students with disabilities.

The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) stands out, as it mandates that districts submit an “academic continuity plan” that meets certain guidelines. The plans ensure that local education agencies use available state resources or vetted outside resources for remote instructional delivery. Additionally, they require alternative instruction options to be accredited, provide “differentiation of content, delivery of content, and assessment options,” as well as ensure technical support is consistently available to students and their families. The ALSDE also recommends that high school students continue to receive weighted credits for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment courses even if they are not able to take relevant assessments.

In Washington state, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) outlines opportunities to increase student voice in students’ “High School and Beyond Plans.” These plans are crafted as early as the eighth grade and help high school students map out necessary courses and credits so they can reach their educational goals. The resource offers educators customizable lesson plans on career exploration; encourages educators to help students adjust goals where relevant; and lists online tools for students to learn about available career options.

To promote continuity of learning, three states and localities offer specific guidance. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) recommends that teachers and districts consider “equity of access and support” for all students before introducing new material, especially at the high school level. Washington state encourages educators to implement strategies for social and emotional learning to best support students and families for continued learning. The Phoenix Union District employed a similar strategy at the district level by requiring school employees call students daily to check in. The calls can range from touching base to see if students want to address any concerns to celebrating student and familial successes. These policies are an intentional effort to center educational equity, as students from various backgrounds face different burdens in navigating these challenging circumstances.

Ensuring equity with resources for marginalized students

It is imperative that learning plans specifically address how to adequately serve students with additional needs such as students with disabilities and English language learners. Currently, almost every state has guidance that is publicly available in an easily accessible online location regarding students with disabilities, whereas 16 states lack similar guidance for English language learners. However, states such as Oklahoma and Massachusetts offer nuanced examples that will benefit these students.

In its issued resource on special education, the Oklahoma State Department of Education notes that districts need to design flexible instruction with students at the center to ensure equity and access. The department also recommends that districts establish and maintain routine communication with parents and adjust individual education plan (IEP) goals to be realistic but still ensure student progress. For IEP team members, the resource offers a list of specific tactics to ensure accessibility in distance instruction, including alternatives for virtual class discussions and use of screen-reading software.

The Massachusetts DESE created specific guidance for educators and families to help their English language learner students, including a list of online educational resources to help students listen, read, and write in English. The resource advises teachers to maintain flexible pacing to incorporate students’ learning styles, use a variety of activities to increase student engagement, and implement different strategies for students to practice their English such as role playing or journaling.

With intentional planning, thoughtful practices that capture the essence of the resources above can help students maintain a quality high school education until graduation.

Provide clear, accessible, and equitable high school graduation requirements

Despite coronavirus uncertainties, high school seniors need to be fully equipped to take their next step in life. To do so, states and districts should offer clear and easily accessible guidance on graduation requirements—including coursework and credit requirements—so that students can receive their diploma. Currently, 34 states have no easily available guidance on graduation requirements for students who are off track as a result of COVID-19. Specifically, off-track students include high school seniors who have insufficient credits to have walked in their graduation before the coronavirus pandemic and who could have made up the credits in the summer or fall.

States can learn from Hawaii and Louisiana, which issued guidance on graduation requirements to ease students’ transition during the coronavirus crisis. The state-issued resources include suggestions around grading; guidance to districts for students who were on track for graduation before the crisis; specific methods to help students who are off track for graduation; and clarity around which graduation requirements can and cannot be waived.

Guidance around graduation requirements is thorough when it offers nuanced strategies for students in varying academic situations. For students who are on track to graduate, Highline Public Schools in Washington state outline a strategy—including a script—for counselors to contact students and ensure they stay on track. The document encourages counselors to check on students’ physical and emotional wellness, academic progress, and evolution on graduation checklists.

Hawaii delineates students’ graduation eligibility based on four bands: students on track to earn their diploma; students with the potential to be on track in the fourth quarter; students who can only be on track with summer school; and students who have been off track since the first semester and who need to work directly with educators. By creating these four bands, Hawaiian school districts can easily sort students and prioritize helping those in need to ensure that students are adequately prepared for graduation.

Similarly, Louisiana outlines suitable opportunities for schools to help students meet credit requirements for graduation. The varying options include “online coursework, written work packets, project-based learning, portfolios, or work-based learning (where current high school course standards align with a student’s job).” These options allow students to demonstrate proficiency in different ways in order to accommodate for varying internet availability and differing types of instruction.

As states issue guidance for students off track for graduation, however, they need to ensure students don’t face unnecessary barriers to complete their high school credential. To ensure cost is not a barrier, West Virginia announced schools will waive fees for virtual summer school and online credit recovery (OCR) for students who were off track for graduation as of March 13, 2020. The state uses the onTargetWV program for OCR, and students have until July 31, 2020, to pass and receive relevant course credit. While OCR programs can be helpful, however, they should be combined with other options to ensure a robust education.

Clarify and facilitate high school pathways to college enrollment

After students complete their graduation requirements, they need to receive guidance on how to complete high school pathways into postsecondary options such as career and technical education (CTE) and dual enrollment as well as similar guidance on transitioning into the military or college enrollment. According to CAP’s analysis, 23 states have no publicly available guidance in an easily accessible online location around pathways that include CTE; 23 states provide no guidance for dual enrollment. However, for more traditional postsecondary pathways such as four-year institution and community college enrollment, most states leave guidance up to the discretion of the institutions of higher education (IHE).

Among states that offer guidance on CTE and dual enrollment, there is explicit language describing how students complete these programs. West Virginia, for example, waived the definition of “CTE completer” for the 2019-2020 school year; made the career skills assessment optional; issued guidance for licensed practical nursing programs; and moved its advanced career education instructional delivery to online platforms so that students may continue learning. Louisiana students can receive dual enrollment credit via distance learning or allow students to withdraw from the course without penalties. According to the Virginia Department of Education’s FAQ, school administrators are explicitly permitted to issue diplomas and transcripts early for students who are already enlisted in a military branch and who have completed graduation requirements as recommended by the department and the Board of Education.

How universities are adapting during the pandemic

If high school seniors have successfully navigated high school learning, grades, and graduation requirements, they still face barriers to enrollment in an IHE. To adjust for the effects of the coronavirus, institutions such as Oregon State University (OSU) and the University of California (UC) system adjusted admissions requirements for incoming freshman, including relaxing SAT/ACT requirements and implementing flexibility for students to confirm enrollment.

OSU is now permanently test optional for freshmen who start in fall 2021; this policy was in the works prior to COVID-19, but OSU fast-tracked it to ease students’ transition during the pandemic. Additionally, OSU pushed students’ admission acceptance deadline to June 1 and now offers “online media and personal interactions with faculty, staff, and current students” so incoming students can learn more about the university.

The UC system’s changes may only be temporary, but they are some of the most encompassing policies in higher education. For incoming freshmen, the UC system is offering flexibility for students who need more time to meet registration, deposit, and transcript deadlines. UC also suspended its minimum letter grade transcript requirement, understanding that current high school students may now have to receive pass/fail grades. Additionally, individual campuses are authorized to extend acceptance deadlines beyond May 1 or June 1 as necessary. These policies stand out because they intentionally center students without decreasing rigor or access.

From an equity perspective, the coronavirus can have severe implications for students from low-income families and first-generation college students who could face barriers that permanently alter their economic futures. Due to the coronavirus, these students are likely to face reduced access to basic needs such as affordable housing and food, and many students may now also deal with other barriers such as trauma and grief. Additionally, students from low-income families are likely focused on how their college journeys could change, as students who may have enrolled in a four-year institution might now need to enroll in a more affordable community college. To lighten these burdens, the UC system has agreed to offer additional financial aid based on families’ changing fiscal situation—a move that will surely aid student during this uncertain time.

Conclusion

Despite this global pandemic, states and districts can ensure that high school learning, graduation requirements, and students’ transition into postsecondary pathways are equitable. With thoughtful planning—as exemplified by states, districts, and universities mentioned above—the class of 2020 can persist and thrive without having to sacrifice educational quality or delay their future.

Ashley Jeffrey is a policy analyst for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress. Laura Jimenez is the director of standards and accountability at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Jamil Modaffari for collecting data on states’ response to the coronavirus crisis.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.

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