It’s official: Starting this school year, Washington students no longer need to take a federal test to earn a high-school diploma. Instead, students now have a new menu of options that acknowledge differences in their pursuits after high school.

The state’s Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a set of graduation pathways and other rules at its recent meeting in Bremerton. But some see the changes as a step back, because they think the new requirements lower the bar for earning a diploma.

Washington high schoolers were among the last in the nation required to pass a set of federally mandated tests to graduate. A state law signed this year nixed that requirement, and education officials have spent the past several months crafting alternative pathways.

The new rules could encourage school districts to identify students who may be eligible for one of the new graduation pathways.

“We’re feverishly putting together specific guidance” for students who may qualify for the career technical education (CTE) option, said Caleb Perkins, executive director of college and career readiness for Seattle Public Schools.

Seattle guidance counselors are combing through high school seniors’ transcripts, he said, to see who might benefit from the new rules. But the school district is still deciding which pathways to promote. For instance, he said, school-district officials have not yet discussed whether to promote the military option.

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Starting with the class of 2020, students can choose from a long list of pathways that recognize multiple types of learning. The pathways also add flexibility for those interested in options other than a four-year college degree, such as the military or a technical profession. About 34% of Washington students enroll in a four-year college the year after they graduate from high school; 28% seek a two-year associate or technical degree and 38% don’t enroll in a higher-education institution, according to the state’s most recent data.

Students must also still meet a set of credit requirements and complete a personalized “high school and beyond plan” that charts their career and education goals.

“This takes some emphasis off testing in our system, which is a positive thing,” said Randy Spaulding, the state board’s executive director. “It also puts students’ different pathways and their goals on a level playing field.”

Leading up to the board vote, a draft of the rules drew intense interest from parents, education advocacy groups, business leaders and lawmakers. More than 450 people and organizations submitted written comments, board officials said.

In one letter to the board, a group of lawmakers who championed the state law that cut ties between graduation and the federal “Smarter Balanced” tests called the draft proposal “inconsistent with the intent of the legislature.”

Legislators took particular issue with the proposed CTE pathway. The board’s proposal allowed students to take CTE courses in different disciplines. But according to the new law, students in such a pathway must take a sequence of related courses ensuring they’re prepared for additional training or to enter a career.

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In response to the criticism, the board revised its rules, leaving it up to school boards to approve sequences of CTE courses. This gives school boards oversight, said Peter Maier, chair of the state Board of Education. But it also allows them flexibility to decide if certain courses fit together, he said, such as agriculture and robotics.

The board’s tweaks ultimately satisfied the lawmakers’ concerns.

“I’m pleased with the direction they’ve taken,” said state Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. “They spelled it out more specifically than we have in the legislation.”

Not everyone is pleased. There’s no guarantee that CTE pathways are equitable across the state, said Libuse Binder, executive director at the nonprofit Stand for Children Washington. Binder also took issue with the military pathway, which allows students to graduate if they meet a minimum score on a military exam.

“If you are a student who is graduating without a degree or the training to set them up for the next phase of their life, the stakes are extremely high,” she said. “At the end of the day, we still feel that the bar is too low.”

Now that the rules are official, what’s next?

For students and families, the most important step is understanding them. To graduate, students must complete one of the following:

  • Pass the federal Smarter Balanced math and English tests.
  • Earn high-school math and English credits by enrolling in “dual-credit” courses.
  • Pass certain Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge International exams, or pass certain “transition” courses that allow students to enroll in college-level coursework.
  • Reach minimum scores set by the state on the SAT or ACT.
  • Meet a combination of the above options in both English and math.
  • Earn a minimum score on a military-aptitude test.
  • Complete a special career technical education program or earn two credits in a set of CTE courses. These courses may be in the same discipline or two different ones. But in the case of the latter, individual school boards or local CTE advisory committees, as well as the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, must sign off.

Students graduating in 2020 who didn’t pass the Smarter Balanced tests are also eligible to apply for a waiver from the graduation requirements, but must show their readiness in other ways. This class is the last who can take advantage of the waiver. (The class of 2020 will also be able to access the new pathways.)