Dual credit in Idaho: What the state’s numbers say

There’s no way to know — with any precision — how Idaho students actually apply state-funded dual credits.

And the state’s two education agencies have painted decidedly different pictures of a program that allowed high school students to earn 80,000 college credits in 2015-16.

First out of the gate was the State Board of Education — which took a critical but brief look at the dual-credit program last week.

During a State Board meeting last week, board staffer Tracie Bent said students use the majority of dual credits as college electives, not degree requirements. Soon after, the board gave preliminary approval to language designed to focus students on college courses that would move them toward a degree.

But the State Department of Education looks at the issue differently — and late last week, the department issued some numbers to support its case.

In 2015-16, 68 percent of dual credits fell under the heading of Idaho’s “GEM framework.” Short for “General Education Matriculation,” the GEM framework focuses on general education courses that tie into degree programs and prepare high school students for the rigors of college.

So, does that mean 68 percent of dual credits will go toward postsecondary degree requirements?

Probably not. And it will take years to have a precise answer. It depends, in large part, on a student’s choice of major.

The GEM coursework is designed to provide solid baseline options, especially to students who are undecided on a major. So the State Department of Education likes what it sees in the GEM framework numbers.

“That tells us that students are being advised well,” said Matt McCarter, the department’s director of student engagement and career and technical readiness.

The State Board’s assessment wasn’t based on numbers. Bent based her comments on parental feedback, a point she made to board members during the Sept. 19 meeting, board spokesman Blake Youde said in an email Monday.

Youde didn’t dispute the State Department of Education’s numbers, and tried to downplay the matter.

“This was a discussion relating to a proposal that the board chose not to advance,” he said. “So at this time, there is nothing more to discuss from the board perspective.”

Indeed, the State Board did back away from tightening up the dual-credit program. After declaring the Sept. 19 meeting void, in the wake of questions over public notice, the board voted Friday to leave the program intact.

To some extent, the question over elective credits is moot. All students have to pass some elective courses in order to earn a degree. And a few dual-credit classes can be the “game-changer” that encourages a high school student to pursue a secondary education, McCarter said.

“I don’t want to downplay the value of electives,” he said.

But last week’s debate does come as the dual-credit program is growing — as is the taxpayer cost. The state spent $4.8 million on dual credits in 2015-16, and the price is expected to reach $5.7 million in 2016-17.