Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the Michigan Merit Curriculum into law in 2006, making the state's graduation requirements among the toughest in the country. Backers said they'd create a well-educated, well-prepared workforce crucial to the state's economic future. But some lawmakers say the standards are designed for students heading to four-year colleges, leaving those who want to pursue careers in construction, welding and agricultural science behind.
"We are not trying to degrade the education system and create a two-tied set of students," Republican Rep. Peter Pettalia of Presque Isle told the House Education Committee. "We are trying to engage a group of students we believe are falling through the cracks."
Under the bills, students would still need four years of math, but would be able to substitute algebra II with statistics, technical math or another math relevant to their career and technical education, said Republican Rep. Ed McBroom of Vulcan.
The bills, which are also backed by some Democrats, would also remove foreign language requirements and allow students to use extracurricular activities to replace some physical education credits. Agricultural science would be an eligible science course. Similar bills are pending in the Senate.
The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals opposes the bills because it says the current requirements work. Since 2006, the state's graduation rate has increased by about 1 percent while the dropout rate has decreased by 4 percent, according to the group.
Efforts have been made to revise the graduation requirements nearly every year since the law was signed, but the bills never gained traction in the Legislature. But McBroom said changes in these bills are so small that he thinks they will make it through the House this year.
The question remains whether Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who in his State of the State Address called it "unacceptable" that only 17 percent of the state's students are "college ready," would back the changes.
"These bills do represent a significant policy change and so the administration will be thoroughly reviewing them and the impacts they could have in our efforts to prepare our kids for the workplace of tomorrow," Snyder spokesman Kurt Weiss said in an email.
McBroom told the committee that by the time students complete the 18 required credits, they usually only have about 6 credits left for other classes. That means students can get boxed out of career and technical education programs, which has caused some schools to stop offering such programs, he said.
But State Superintendent Mike Flanagan said the percentage of Michigan students in career and technical education programs has remained flat since the curriculum was put in place. About 7.6 percent of Michigan students are in these programs now, compared to about 7.5 percent when the requirements were set.
There is already plenty of leeway, particularly when it comes to algebra II, said Wendy Zdeb-Roper, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals and a former high school principal. Students can spread out the algebra II content over two years. Algebra II can also be embedded into career and technical classes.
Students may also follow a personal curriculum, or an individualized curriculum developed by the superintendent, parents and student.
Flanagan said concerns over the requirements come down to "propaganda from some folks in the district" who don't want to integrate the standards into career and technical education programs.
"People cannot argue that this cannot be done, because every single aspect of it is being done in the state," he said.
McBroom said the personal curriculum can be a great tool, but said it can be difficult and time consuming to put together the individualized curriculums so access is limited.
Flanagan said he hopes the decision to provide a student with a personal curriculum is made thoughtfully and doesn't remove students from certain classes without giving them a chance.
For 50 years, "the system tended to put certain kids, before you even tried to expose them to math, in watered-down math," he said.
As Michigan transitions to adopt national requirements for students to learn in math, English, history, social studies and science, teaching only some students algebra II could also pose a problem as the assessments used under the standards require knowledge of algebra II, Zdeb-Roper said.
"We are not trying to say that Michigan is going to continue forward with a great economy based only on high school grads," McBroom said. Everyone needs post-secondary education, but that does not mean everyone needs a four-year college degree, he said.
But Zdeb-Roper said the standards aim to set up students for success in any post-high school path.
"We feel that all students need to meet these requirements to be successful," she said.