MassLang: Graduation Requirements

MassLang: Graduation Requirements

In the United States, requirements for graduating from high school vary greatly from state to state, and often also from town to town.  The Education Commission of the States (ECS) maintains a detailed list of Standard High School Graduation requirements for all 50 states, originally compiled in 2007 and updated regularly as state requirements have changed.  The ECS survey shows that most states have no foreign language requirement for high school graduation, although there are some notable exceptions.  For example, New York and New Jersey both require 1 year of foreign language study; the District of Columbia  and Michigan require 2 years of a World Language.

The public school system in the state of Massachusetts is often considered one of the best in the United States, based on student performance on several different standardized metrics commonly used in the US.  Massachusetts public school students have also performed competitively on many International evaluations. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Leading the Nation page showcases some of the recent results, including #1 in the U.S. in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam and (tied for) #1 in the world in reading on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  A recent article in Atlantic magazine (“What Are Massachusetts Public Schools Doing Right?”) also highlights the performance of the Massachusetts system.  The state achieves this high performance despite having no set of minimum high school graduation requirements other than passing three different Grade 10 standardized exams in English Language Arts, Math, and Science;  Massachusetts state law also requires the instruction of “American history and civics” and “physical education.”   All other curriculum decisions and graduation requirements are determined by each local school district, and this results in a range of offerings and requirements across high schools the state.

At the state level, Massachusetts has no requirement that schools even teach a foreign language.The wide range in graduation requirements, not to mention course offerings, across Massachusetts public high schools is especially striking in foreign language instruction.  At the state level, Massachusetts has no requirement that schools even teach a foreign language, nor does it have a dedicated foreign language coordinator position in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  All decisions about foreign language instruction, including whether to even offer a foreign language, are made at the level of individual school districts.  As a result, many MA public high schools have no graduation requirement for foreign language study, while others require as many as 8 years of study of one or more foreign languages.  Some MA public schools offer no foreign language classes at all, while others offer as many as 7 different foreign languages.

That is not to say that the state does not recognize the value of foreign language instruction.  Massachusetts strongly recommends that students study a foreign language, even if the state does not require it.  For example, the Massachusetts Foreign Languages Curriculum Framework (last updated in 1999) states that “All students should become proficient in at least one language in addition to English by the time they graduate from high school.”   More recently, the state released MassCore, which it describes as “a recommended program of studies” but “not a state graduation requirement.”

The Massachusetts High School Program of Studies (MassCore) is intended to help our state’s high school graduates arrive at college or the workplace well prepared and reduce the number of students taking remedial courses in college. MassCore recommends a comprehensive set of subject area courses and units as well as other learning opportunities to complete before graduating from high school.

The recommended program of studies includes: four years of English, four years of Math, three years of a lab-based Science, three years of history, two years of the same foreign language, one year of an arts program and five additional “core” courses such as business education, health, and/or technology. MassCore also includes additional learning opportunities including AP classes, dual enrollment, a senior project, online courses for high school or college credit, and service or work-based learning.

MassCore is very similar to the admissions standards for the University of Massachusetts and other publicly-funded universities in the state, which require two years of foreign language study for admission.  Universities that have extremely competitive admissions usually expect 3-5 years of a foreign language.  For example, Dartmouth University reports that “The majority of applicants have taken … 4 years of a foreign language”

With no foreign language coordinator at the state level of Massachusetts government, much of the foreign language advocacy and coordination comes from the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association (MaFLA), a “non-profit service organization committed to the professional growth of its members and to the promotion of quality teaching and learning and cultures from kindergarten through the college level and beyond.”   MaFLA was instrumental in the recent passage of the Language Opportunity for our Kids (LOOK) law, which, among other important items that improve language education, established the Massachusetts state Seal of Biliteracy to recognize students who have attained a high level of proficiency in English and another language.

How Many Massachusetts Schools Require Foreign Language Study?

One question we sought to answer in our analysis was “How many public high schools in Massachusetts require all students to study a foreign language in order to graduate?

We found that among the 351 public high schools in Massachusetts, the graduation requirement ranges from 0 years (no requirement) to 8 years of study of one or more foreign language.Only a little more than half of public high schools in Massachusetts require foreign language study for graduation.  Of the 351 schools, 198 (56.4%) require each student to study a foreign language for at least 1 year in order to graduate, while 153 schools (43.6%) have no foreign language requirement for graduation.  The percentage of schools requiring foreign language study appears to be growing: a 2001 Mass DoE survey found that 35.8% had a requirement at that time.  The most common requirement, at 160 of the 198 schools with a graduation requirement, is 2 years;  this aligns with the MassCore recommendation and the admissions standards of the Massachusetts public universities.   Only 4% of all high schools in the state (14 of 351) require 4 or more years of foreign language study, and only 4 schools require students to study 2 different languages.  The graph below shows the number of all MA public high schools that require from 0 to 8 years of foreign language study.

Number of Schools (y-axis) vs. Number of Years of Foreign Language Study Required for Graduation (x-axis)

The full results are summarized in the table below, including requirements for each of the four types of public high schools in our analysis.

Years of Foreign Language Study Required for Graduation from Massachusetts Public High Schools

For Traditional public high schools in MA, 59.2% (154 of 260) have a foreign language graduation requirement, while 40.6% (106 of 260) have no requirement.  Of the 154 schools with a requirement, 6 (3.9%) require 1 year, 138 (89.6%) require 2 years, and 10 (6.5%) require more than 2 years.  Half of Non-traditional high schools (8 of 16) require at least 1 year of foreign language study.

Of the Charter schools in Massachusetts, almost all (92.1%, 35 of 38) have a foreign language graduation requirement, with 16 requiring 2 years and 19 requiring 3 or more years.  On the other hand, of 37 Vocational high schools, only 1 has a foreign language graduation requirement for all students; Worcester Technical High is in the Worcester Public School District, which has adopted the Masscore recommendations as the graduation requirements for all Worcester high schools.