TOPEKA — The Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday voted to allow school districts to count computer science as a math or science credit for high school graduation requirements.
Many Kansas schools already offer a computer science course as an elective. Now, if approved by the local school board, students may exchange one unit of computer science for either a science or math class.
Supporters of the change say it will open doors to the importance of computer science and related fields, while engaging students who may struggle with math and science classes.
“I think that this is long overdue and I’m excited that we’re going down this path,” said Melanie Hass, an Overland Park board member. “Is it perfect? No, I don’t think it’s perfect, but as we talk this morning, we’re going to have some opportunities to make things a little bit more perfect.”
The board voted 8-2 to approve a recommendation from Stephen King, a computer science education program consultant for the Kansas State Department of Education. King brought the recommendation before the board in May.
Randy Watson, the KSDE commissioner, also announced a task force to review graduation requirements across the state.
King said 49 other states already allow computer science to count as a math, science or other subject credit. He argued the benefits would extend beyond the classroom.
“It’s a benefit to the students, it’s a benefit to counselors and administrators, and it’s a benefit to our business industry where they can now show that, OK, Kansas is one of those states that believes computer science is important enough,” King said.
Katie Hendrickson, a representative of Change.org, a national nonprofit working to expand access to computer science in schools, testified before the board. She argued Kansas schools are not prioritizing computer science classes.
Computer science would offer skills important for students to learn and be successful, Hendrickson said.
“What we’re talking about is not a specific programming language,” Hendrickson said. “We’re talking about those building blocks, the foundations of thinking through problems, identifying problems that can be solved computationally. Those skills are so important for students.”
Jim Porter, chairman of the board, reluctantly voted in favor of the action. While 49 states approved this, many did so through their state Legislature, not the board of education, he said.
The Fredonia board member said he believed the state is at an educational crossroads.
“First of all, we need to do something to address the need for computer science,” Porter said. “Secondly, we need to address comprehensive graduation requirements that include the 21st century, not the early 20th century. Third, we need to make sure that we are making the decisions about the educational requirements in the state, as opposed to the Legislature.”
Ann Mah was one of the two board members who voted against the proposal. More than 2,000 computer courses were being offered in 177 of Kansas’ 286 districts, she said.
The Topeka education board member added that most states that allow computer science to substitute as a core math or science course also require more math and science than Kansas does currently.
Mah also questioned why they would change something graduation-adjacent with the possibility the task force introduced by Watson would have recommendations for further changes.
“This recommendation makes no sense as I don’t think it will produce the results desired and is premature,” Mah said. “Finally, we need to consider the impact of this change on the consideration of future teacher educators when we say to them, ‘Math and science is no longer as important in Kansas as it was.’ ”
Reviewing graduation requirements
In Kansas, no school district uses the graduation requirements set out by the Kansas Board of Education, Watson said to begin his announcement of the new graduation requirement review task force.
Watson said all had added on to or gone beyond the board’s recommendations. Some had temporarily lowered their requirements amid the pandemic or for foster children, but all other districts had adopted something beyond the state requirements.
Currently, a high school graduate must have a minimum of 21 credits to graduate, although, as Watson noted, every school district in Kansas requires more than the minimum number. The 21-credit minimum must include four units of English, three units of history and government, three units of math, three units of science, one unit of physical education, one unit of fine arts and six units of electives.
The task force, Watson said, would be tasked with reviewing whether course requirements should be added or deleted.
“This will be a tremendous amount of work, and we’ll see what comes out of it,” Watson said. “Every 20 or 30 years we ought to look at those.”
The task force will begin work within the month, he said, and deliver a final report May 2022. It will be led by Wichita board member Jim McNiece.
He said any changes to graduation requirements for high school students required four years notice, so the earliest change would likely be for 2026.
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