Only committed observers of the Wyoming State Board of Education (SBE) have followed the three-year route to rules promulgation for Chapter 31, which governs graduation requirements for students to earn a high school diploma in Wyoming.
In 2015, the Legislature eliminated the tiered diploma system and the “body of evidence” that previously detailed graduation requirements in Wyoming. This bill required the board to establish new rules that would specify the requirements for high school students to earn a diploma.
Starting in 2016, the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) and the SBE made four attempts to promulgate rules by stipulating that the graduation requirements were already the high school standards contained in Chapter 10 rules. Chapter 10 is a collection of state standards for the nine content areas where standards now exist. These include: English/language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, health, physical education, fine and performing arts, career and technical education, and foreign language. (A 10th content area — computer science — was added by the Legislature in 2018.) In each of those four consecutive tries, the Legislative Service Office did not support approving the proposed rules, and were ultimately rejected by Governor Matt Mead.
After the fourth rejection, the SBE sent a series of questions to Attorney General Peter K. Michael, that asked for clarification about the legislative requirement to establish rules governing graduation requirements. The issues raised by the state board were so complex that the attorney general’s opinion took four months to respond. During the interim session (the time between two legislative sessions), the Joint Education Committee asked Special Assistant Attorney General Michael O’Donnell to assist the SBE and the WDE in framing new rules.
Ultimately, the statutory and constitutional provisions for graduation requirements were such that the board had to establish parameters that were both uniform and flexible.
Uniformity would allow students from Sundance High School to receive the same high-quality education as those who attend Laramie High. Flexibility would allow trustees in Powell to set graduation requirements that were fundamentally different from those in Saratoga. It was extremely challenging for the WDE and the SBE to craft rules that would be both uniform and flexible.
O’Donnell asked the state board coordinator to convene a committee that would represent the most affected constituencies. One might think that this would include high school students and their parents, but the groups who set high school graduation requirements are largely district superintendents and curriculum directors, approved by the local board of trustees. Executive directors from the Wyoming Association of School Administrators and Wyoming Curriculum Directors Association suggested representatives to serve on the committee. Additional representatives came from the Attorney General’s office, the WDE, the SBE, and the Governor’s office. Input from the Governor’s office was key because at the end of the process, if the Governor disagrees with the proposed revisions to the rules, they are not signed and do not become law. The presence of the curriculum directors representatives was important because curriculum directors are typically responsible for bundling state standards into curriculum units that teachers utilize to teach to the many state standards at the high school level.
This group met four times to review the response from the Attorney General and to discuss finding the “Occam’s Razor” – the simplest solution tends to be the right one – that might achieve the balance between uniformity and flexibility in graduation requirements. To avoid unnecessary complexity, the group based its work on the typical Wyoming high school student. Challenging cases, like the diploma requirements for special education students or assessing proficiency on state standards for transfer students, were not considered. Fortunately, Dr. Julie Magee, the WDE Accountability Director, offered to draft the initial rules.
Ultimately, the solution reached requires school districts to assure they provide all high school students multiple opportunities to learn all the state standards during their high school journey. That does not mean that all high school students are required to learn the physics standards or the art standards. Rather, if they decided to take physics or art, they would find curriculum addressing the standards set for those subject areas in Chapter 10.
The assurance that every high school in Wyoming delivers all the state standards somewhere in the curriculum meets the uniformity requirement. The ability for school districts to bundle standards into curriculum units that make sense for students in their high schools meets the flexibility requirement.
Another facet of state law requires the WDE and SBE to review the standards alignment and district assessment system every five years. Taken together, these three agreements formed the basis of the new Chapter 31 rules.
In the end, collaboration triumphed over complexity since different institutions, agencies, and associations all worked together to find a compromise that balanced uniformity and flexibility. At its May meeting, the SBE voted to promulgate the rules, and following a public comment period, Governor Mead signed and approved the rules on August 15, 2018.