Pittsburgh-area schools consider graduation changes

Board responding to new regulations

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The Pittsburgh Public Schools board is considering changing high school graduation requirements, including eliminating the graduation project, adding more time for biology, and reducing the amount of time for physical education.

Pittsburgh is among many boards throughout the state that are looking at changing graduation requirements in the wake of regulations approved by the state Board of Education.

After the Class of 2016, the regulations eliminate the requirement for a culminating high school graduation project.

Beginning with the Class of 2017, the state will require proficiency in certain end-of-course Keystone Exams or on a state-designed, project-based online assessment for high school graduation.

The requirements became official when they were published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin March 1.

In Pittsburgh, chief academic officer Jerri Lynn Lippert presented the recommendations to the board last week. The board is expected to vote April 30.

Some districts, such as Bethel Park and Moon Area, are reviewing their policies, while others, including Avonworth and Quaker Valley, plan to continue requiring a graduation project because school officials find it valuable.

"It's actually good preparation for life after high school in terms of being on your own in college. You're going to have to work on projects, keep up with work," said Jillian Bichsel, Quaker Valley director of academic services.

Gateway plans to eliminate the graduation project. Spokeswoman Cara Zanella said, "Since college- and career-readiness is expected to be immersed in grades K-12, it would seem a separate and stand-alone project at the high-school level is no longer practical."

Chartiers Valley also is phasing out its graduation project, but spokeswoman Kara Droney said, "We believe many components of the projects are very beneficial to students, so those components have been integrated into courses and other programs at Chartiers Valley."

Pittsburgh's proposal would eliminate the project as a graduation requirement, but it would continue in some form in English classes.

Amy Filipowski, supervisor for 6-12 literacy and K-12 library for the city district, said the project has "some valuable parts for preparing for career and college after high school."

She said English teachers will continue having students explore careers, practice writing college essays and put together resumes.

Some city schools have additional projects they may continue as well, Ms. Filipowski said.

Pennsylvania is rolling out the Keystone Exams, which were given statewide for the first time in 2012-13. So far, three are available -- literature, algebra 1 and biology -- but others are planned if money to develop them is available.

While the state doesn't require passing any Keystone Exams until the Class of 2017, Pittsburgh is using them as local assessments in literature and algebra 1 for the Classes of 2015 and 2016.

After that, the proposed city graduation requirements mirror the state on Keystone proficiency:

* Classes of 2017 and 2018: literature, algebra 1 and biology.

* Class of 2019: English composition will be added, if it is developed.

* Class of 2020: civics and government will be added, if it is developed.

The state is developing online projects for students as an alternative for those who do not pass the Keystones.

State biology and science tests have been troublesome for city students, at least in part because the curriculum didn't closely match what was tested.

Ms. Lippert said that this school year the middle school science curriculum was switched, providing life science in eighth grade and physical science in seventh grade.

That leads into high school biology, where students are to spend more time.

Ms. Lippert has recommended ninth-grade biology classes be required to meet seven or eight periods a week, providing more time for "inquiry-based" learning. Currently, only some biology classes provide the extra periods known as lab periods.

Given science is required all four years, that would push the number of science credits needed to graduate to 4.5, the most for any subject area.

At the same time, the requirement for physical education would be reduced to one credit, which amounts to two full semesters or two or three periods a week for a year during a high school career. Currently, students must take at least two credits of physical education.

Pittsburgh's current requirements call for 26.5 credits to graduate, including four years of English, four years of math (including algebra 1 and 2 and geometry), four years of science (including biology, chemistry and physics), four years of social studies and one year of health.

The total number of credits would remain the same under the proposal.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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