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WASHINGTON state has a great opportunity to close the job skills gap for graduating seniors and to better ensure they are prepared for careers and college. But we need to act now.

Our state has the highest concentration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs in the nation — yet we have nearly 25,000 job openings that haven’t been filled for at least three months because employers are unable to find skilled employees. Our state ranks 49th in the mismatch between the skills required for available jobs and individuals with those skills. This gap is growing faster than every state but Delaware.

The state Senate passed Senate Bill 6552, now under consideration by the House, to increase state high-school graduation requirements by four credits to 24, a longtime recommendation of the State Board of Education. That means more science and math for our students, and that our graduation requirements would be more closely aligned with four-year college admission requirements. This would be a major step in ensuring all students are better able to succeed when they graduate, whether they are going to college, vocational training or into a job.

Last year, this Legislature included the 24-credit diploma in the definition of basic education, and funded the components, but did not authorize the state to require 24 credits for graduation. As a former chair and member of the State Board of Education, I believe it’s vital for lawmakers to now authorize it so it can go into effect for the graduating class of 2019.

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The Career- and College-Ready Diploma signifies to colleges, training institutes and employers that Washington students are prepared for the next step. It also provides Washington students with opportunities to pursue postsecondary education and training because all school districts would require a minimum of 24 credits to graduate.

Washington state has growing academic achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups in math and science. Our state is one of only a dozen states where achievement gaps are actually increasing, not decreasing. We must reverse this trend.

Currently, our state graduation requirements in science and math fall short of admission requirements to four-year colleges. In science, we require two credits to graduate from high school. Thirty-six other states require, or plan to require, three or more credits of science for graduation. Additionally, many other states require four years of math. Washington requires only three. As with science, that’s one credit short of most four-year college admission requirements.

Recently, Gov. Jay Inslee and state lawmakers worked together to maintain Boeing’s present levels of employment in the state. Clearly, this is a state eager to keep high-wage jobs and employers to ensure that current and future generations of Washingtonians have a shot at these desirable jobs. We now need to invest in schools by adopting the 24-credit Career- and College-Ready Diploma so our children would have the skills and knowledge to help fill the projected 50,000 unfilled, high-skilled jobs we’ll have in our state by 2017 and beyond.

Our state’s graduation requirements are outdated and don’t reflect the 21st century skills that will be required of all students after high school — regardless of their postsecondary paths. It’s time for the Legislature to authorize the 24-credit high-school diploma.

Washington state is about opportunity. We need to do our best to ensure all of our students have every opportunity to succeed and take full advantage of the bright, successful future our state has to offer.

Jeff Vincent is CEO of Laird Norton, chair of the Washington Roundtable’s Education Committee and president of the Partnership for Learning’s board.

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