All pandemic long, people have been talking about how schools need to take urgent steps to fix cracks and close chasms in public education systems to make learning more meaningful and equitable. In Washington, a work group of educators, legislators and other community members has been asked to redefine what it means to be a life- and career-ready high school graduate before the end of the year. 

This definition will go beyond grades: Can students show how they are able to think critically while working on a team? Or how well they adapt to changes and challenges? Can they confidently and competently balance a budget and collaborate with people who look or think differently than them? 

Washington is working to compose this “Profile of a Graduate,” a key list of skills and characteristics all students should possess and practice before heading into the real world. 

The group, known as the Mastery-based Learning Work Group, was first convened by the state education board two years ago this month. It is based on legislation designed to give students a more self-directed, better-supported and more engaged learning experience. 

The group has been holding virtual listening sessions this summer with educators, families, business and higher education community members to get feedback on what skills are essential for students to have to survive and thrive in life after high school. The final public listening session in this series will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 8 over Zoom. An online community survey for input on the subject is open through Sept. 10. 

Focus groups have also been held with family and student groups of color and students and recent graduates who are differently capable and their families, Muller said. 

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“The work group hopes the profile of a graduate, once developed, will serve as the overarching vision for our education system moving forward,” said Alissa Muller, director of the board of education’s Mastery-based Learning Collaborative. The group is taking into consideration existing state laws, including the one that established multiple state graduation pathways, as it develops the profile of a graduate. 

The group has until Dec. 10 to describe the cross-disciplinary skills a student should have developed by the time they graduate high school.

The work is in its early stages, so no draft of the profile exists for review. But this effort could create a road map for moving the education system in a new direction. 

When the work group members submit their draft report from the listening sessions and survey to the legislature, they will likely include cost estimates around implementation or proposed policy changes, Muller said. 

According to the work group’s 2020 report on mastery-based learning, the profile would “signify the expansion of Washington’s concept of a high school diploma from one based on just academic content to one based on a holistic view of the student,” meaning that it would recognize both credit- and mastery-based approachesd to meeting state learning standards. 

While this is a new initiative in Washington, it is not unique in concept. The Snoqualmie Valley School District developed its “Portrait of a Graduate” in 2019, after 900 people participated in an online deliberation and more than 80 people attended a community meeting on the topic. The district is in the middle of a three-year plan to implement its eight “essential competencies” into curriculum, policy and instruction: communication and collaboration; adaptability and resourcefulness; empathy; creativity and innovation; critical thinking; independent life skills; global citizenship; and having a learner’s mindset. 

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Across the country, states and school districts are in various phases of developing and implementing similar programs. Muller said the work group has looked to districts in Illinois and Missouri, as well as statewide initiatives in South Carolina, Virginia, Wyoming. The Profile of the South Carolina Graduate ties its state grad goals — like having a strong work ethic, knowing multiple languages and having media and technology literacy — to a road map to help students apply and improve their skills. These components advance by phase of development, from childhood to adulthood versus being attached to a specific grade level.  

Ashley Lin, a recent graduate of Union High School in Camas, is a youth delegate to the state work group. During a July 27 webinar, she said it’s important for students “to leave high school with a plan that makes sense for them.” She said mastery-based learning is a way to “personalize students’ learning” and acknowledge the experiences they gain both inside and out of classrooms.  

“We want school to prepare us for the future,” Lin said. “We want to know things like how to do our taxes and how to buy apartments and how to build our credit score. We want to be able to do real things in our community, and mastery-based learning gives us pathways to practice taking action, to practice taking responsibility and to really discover and hone our gifts and be of service to our community.”

UPDATE: An online community survey for input on Washington state’s Profile of a Graduate initiative remains open through an extended deadline of Sept. 25. Info: Alissa Muller at alissa.muller@k12.wa.us or sbe.wa.gov.

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