Sen. Bill Soules talks about New Mexico's updated graduation requirements


Last month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 171, updating graduation requirements for secondary school students across New Mexico. It was the first update since 2007 and takes effect for students entering high school in 2025-26.

In 2023, the governor vetoed legislation that would have reduced the required number of academic credits. The new law retains the 24-credit requirement and increases unit requirements in core subjects. It also permits career technical education courses (commonly referred to as CTE) and work-based learning to count academically, and emphasizes financial literacy as essential civic knowledge, which were priorities for Lujan Grisham as well as lawmakers. The debate about financial literacy hinged chiefly on whether to make it a standalone course requirement.

Fundamentally, the question gets to what New Mexico feels are the core competencies needed to graduate from high school, whether the student goes on to college, career training or another plan.

The legislation states what lawmakers feel the high school diploma is for: “To demonstrate that a student is ready for success in post-secondary education, gainful employment and citizenship and is equipped with the skills to be a lifelong learner.”

Currently, New Mexico’s graduation rate is 76.2 percent, as reported in a legislative analysis. That is significantly below the national average of 85 percent, though a marked improvement from the recent low of 63 percent in fiscal year 2010.

Getting the governor’s signature on a bill was a process years in the making, according to Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. In an interview, he told the Las Cruces Bulletin he worked closely with his counterpart on the House Education Committee, Rep. Andrés Romero, an Albuquerque Democrat who, like Soules, is an educator.

Because New Mexico has a part-time legislature that meets 60 or 30 days per year in regular session, and partly because of the time required for professional educators to provide input and for debate among legislators, Soules said it took essentially four years to craft the legislation.

Financial literacy proved to be the largest hurdle, and not a partisan one.

“There were a number of legislators and some groups, Think New Mexico and others, that had been pushing for a standalone financial literacy class,” he said. “We very much indicated that is deeply embedded through all of the social studies and in several different levels in different places in the standards that are required to be taught.”

Soules also addressed provisions of the bill that give local school districts or public charters some control over requirements in keeping with standards mandated by the state, as well as graduate profiles describing how students are prepared for life after high school. In the past, Soules said the tools used to measure competency focused on how universities determined eligibility, compared to a contemporary understanding that not every student’s goals require college – or necessarily should.

The graduate profile is a document answering, as Soules put the question: “Who are you, as a result of you graduating from high school? What can you show that you've done, what CTE courses have you taken that demonstrate who you are?

“Then you show an ability to communicate, to write, to do math in the fields that you're looking at, that you've got civic competence and understand the world around you. We’re setting it up more focused on the needs of the student rather than what are the needs of the university,” he said.

The next question is, how much of it is focused on what employers want, in the short- or long-term?

“Certainly, we hear from the business community that they want workers, we aren’t preparing enough of whatever the flavor of the month is,” he said, noting an emphasis in recent years on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. “Not all kids want to go into STEM, and if we force them into that, we're setting them up for failure.”

CTE has demonstrated, in data cited by legislative analysts and Soules during our interview, benefits for student engagement through the school years as well as graduation. While workforce development is needed for individuals and society, Soules argued that is not the sole concern of universal education.

“I don't think the role of the public schools is to provide a workforce for business to exploit with minimum wage, an inexpensive workforce,” Soules continued. “I don't think that's our role. I see it as broader and larger than that, that we're preparing people to be productive, happy, effective adults in what they choose to do.”

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Graduation requirement highlights

*4 units of English
*4 units of math, including Algebra I and Geometry, but Algebra II not required
*3 units of science, two including a laboratory component
*4 units of social science, including U.S. history, geography and financial literacy among other requirements
*5.5 units of electives, may include financial literacy, computer science and CTE
*2 courses set by local school district or governing board;
*1 unit of physical education, may include dance or marching band;
* Half a unit of health.
House Bill 171, updating graduation requirements, legislation, Graduation requirement highlights