Of course, a wise parent will begin with the end in mind in order to plan an appropriate course of study for a child, and engage in necessary research (i.e., visiting college and trade school websites to learn admissions requirements, checking with military recruitment offices, etc.) to determine what a child may need for his next step in life. After all, our primary responsibility is to insure that our children launch well. But the key word is customization – i.e., as home educators, we may legally and without apology customize a high school program for each child and determine ways to “count” all that the child desires to learn about and study. We are not bound by state mandates on those who attend public/government schools or the requirements determined by the boards of public school districts in which we reside; indeed, we should purpose to ignore all of that in favor of meeting the real needs of each of our uniquely-designed children.
It’s also very important to understand that our parent-generated diplomas and transcripts are legally binding and wholly acceptable, and that – in contrast to misinformation sometimes touted by various bureaucrats – obtaining a GED is not at all necessary or preferable. The documents we create should be accurate and professional-looking but, because homeschooling is a legal means by which a child of every age may receive a legal education, our final documents – without need for outside validation or “accreditation” - are just as acceptable as those from any other legally-operating school.
Given all of that, most parents still want to get down to brass tacks – i.e., what does it take to earn a credit and how many credits does a teen need? In terms of the former, we may use any of three commonly accepted ways to award a credit with integrity, and we are free to incorporate all three in different ways, depending on each child’s needs.
1. Complete about 70% or more of a textbook or conventional online course.
Textbooks – and, nowadays, lecture-style online courses – are often the first means of content delivery we consider because these options mirror the approach used by the institutional schools with which we are most familiar. And sometimes this approach is best for a particular child and/or to advance his goals in a certain subject area. But remember that we – as the legal administrators of our legal private schools – may legitimately determine which textbooks and courses to use to meet our children’s real needs. Often that means we search for “high school level” books and classes. But for some children we need to seek out advanced coursework (i.e., college level) and for others we may need more basic material. Regardless of the label provided by a textbook publisher or course curator or how we might document it on the child’s transcript (i.e., one course may be called “basic” or “introductory,” another as “honors” or “advanced”), if a child works on it during his high school years, it counts as a legitimate high school credit.
Additionally, the amount of time it takes to complete a course is not important (i.e., we need not organize our teens’ learning based on school-style 16-week semesters or 32-week school years). If a teen can finish a book or self-paced online course in a short amount of time, he still earns 1 credit. Alternately, if he takes more time than would be typical in a conventional school and/or you purposely spread out completion of the material over a longer period of time, he still gets 1 credit when done. And you may award a full credit if the child reaches 70% completion if you’d like. At first blush, that seems odd – as homeschoolers, we usually believe in completely finishing a book before moving on – but in some situations, allowing a child to stop before completion is appropriate. Indeed, most teachers in conventional schools rarely finish more than 70% of the textbooks they use, yet still award full credit.
2. Accrue about 120 hours using a variety of resources.
The homeschool law in most states mandates that we “provide instruction.” However, “instruction” is generally not strictly defined within the law and is not limited to school-style seat work and textbooks. In reality, “instruction” includes the use of any resource or participation in any activity that can reasonably contribute to a child’s overall education. Thus, “instruction” can legitimately include the use of living books, media, hands-on activities, project-based learning, field trips, software and other online resources, etc., in addition to (or instead of) textbooks and school-style tests and quizzes. When using this approach, the commonly accepted standard – based on what is called a Carnegie unit – is to award 1 credit for every 120 hours or so of study (or a half-credit for about 60 hours). We need not be militant about this (i.e., if we keep a rough tally and a child spends 115 hours, we can still award a credit), but – as with every element of our homeschooling endeavors – we should use the hours approach with integrity.
3. Demonstrate mastery.Regarding how many credits to require in each content area for graduation, it’s worth reiterating the importance of avoiding the use of public school graduation requirements as your measure; simply put, those requirements are set for public school kids for various reasons, but they do not represent any sort of objective ideal worth imitating. Ignore them. Beyond that, the answer varies depending on the needs of each child.
Sometimes a teen is simply gifted in a particular content area and/or pours himself into mastery of it during his free time and without using any formal resources or keeping track of time. Because we want to give our kids credit for the holistic learning they undertake during all of their time in their high school years, we can legitimately award credits for such endeavors without using either of the other methods. As a rule of thumb, think about whether your child could demonstrate mastery of a content area or skill if asked by a person knowledgeable in the field. If you can answer yes with integrity, you may award credit based on demonstrated mastery.
For example, if a teen’s goal is to enroll in a 4-year college directly after high school – or to obtain an appointment to a military academy – you should study the real admissions requirements on the websites of colleges/academies of interest and use that to plan a high school program. If you do so, you’ll see two things: first, with rare exception, the requirements for most 4-year institutions are remarkably similar, so planning to meet requirements for one college will likely suffice for most others; second, quite a few colleges (including some Ivy Leaguers!) no longer list specific required high school coursework, taking a purposely more holistic approach and stating only that a student must have a diploma and transcript and submit appropriate standardized test scores and, perhaps, personal essays.
Alternately, you may be considering a community or technical college (i.e., a 1- or 2-year program), in which case your child’s high school plan can (and should) be quite different than if he were going to attend a 4-year school. In most such cases, the community/technical schools have no specific admissions requirements at all; instead, students must simply submit a diploma and a transcript and, perhaps, take the school’s placement exam. Some programs within a community/technical college do have specific admissions requirements, and if your child knows the program into which he wants to enroll, you might use those requirements in designing his high school expectations. But he can also take any prerequisite coursework at the college if he hasn’t already done so in high school.
Yet another option might be direct enlistment into the military, which is a completely viable alternative for any homeschooler and does not require any specific high school coursework. Or a teen may desire to go directly into a full-time job or start his own business; in those cases, his high school coursework can (should) be tailored to his specialized needs.
Given all the options, it’s impossible to say that all homeschooled teens must take a set list of courses – or that all must approach coursework in the same way. As intimidating as it might seem, the freedom and responsibility for deciding each child’s high school graduation requirements really does rest solely with his parents based on his real post-secondary needs. No one else has the authority to say otherwise.
But some general guidelines might put some minds at ease, so I offer this chart as a list of minimum suggestions (not my idea of “requirements”) based on customary expectations. On these charts, I have first listed – as a reference point – the required subjects named in the state homeschool law where I live (Wisconsin) and proceed from there.
Notes Regarding Each Subject:
Four-year colleges/academies generally want a student’s first high school credit to be Algebra 1, with a subsequent progression through Geometry and Algebra 2, followed by Trigonometry, Calculus, or Statistics, depending on the student’s planned college major. Though some mandate only 2 credits, most that list requirements say 3 or 4.
Placement exams for community/technical colleges often include some elements of Algebra 1 and Geometry, so taking those courses at some point in high school may be beneficial. However, a student could study more “basic” math – General Math and Pre-Algebra – earlier in high school (and legitimately count the credits earned) and then take Algebra 1 and Geometry later. And for other options, credits may include any “higher” math of interest but might also be limited to more “basic” material such as Personal Finance, General Math, Practical Math, and Pre-Algebra if preferred.
I’ve suggested a 2-credit minimum to facilitate compliance with the language of some homeschool laws that say math should be "covered" in some way every year (i.e., aiming for at least a half-credit every year).
Though it is listed as its own subject within the text of some homeschool laws, Reading is not otherwise identified as its own subject. Instead, it is typically considered to be part of Language Arts or English.
When 4-year college admissions counselors think of “English” credits, they generally expect that an “English” course has incorporated an appropriate mix of reading (literature) and expository writing. Spelling and grammar are not considered to be major components of such coursework; instead, it is assumed that mastery of those skills will be addressed within the writing process. While it’s acceptable to label courses simply – as English 1, English 2, etc. – it is also possible to list more customized course titles – i.e., Creative Writing, British Literature – but the courses should still reflect a balance between reading and writing.
For 2-year colleges and other options, you will have more flexibility. Whatever course titles you list and credits you award, your goal should be to insure that your child is proficient in reading, writing, speaking, and listening at a level commensurate with his post-secondary needs. Thus, it’s probably wise to plan for 1 credit each year. But I suggest at least a 2-credit minimum to facilitate compliance with the language of a homeschool law that says language arts should be "covered" in some way every year (i.e., aiming for at least a half-credit every year).
Some 4-year colleges require only 2 science credits, but most mandate 3 or 4 and sometimes indicate that 1 or 2 of those credits must be “lab science” (i.e., science in which the student participates in lab work/experiments of various types). While a typical science course sequence might start with General Science or Physical Science and then proceed to Biology, Chemistry, and Physics and – if time allows – Advanced Biology, Organic Chemistry or Advanced Physics, some colleges may not accept General and/or Physical Science, particularly for those pursuing a science-oriented degree.
For other options, on the other hand, any of the above-mentioned credits are acceptable, as are less common courses such as Astronomy and Earth Science, and customized work in areas of special interest (i.e., Canine Science, Equestrian Studies, Botany and Gardening, etc.). As with other subject areas, remember again that even if you require fewer than 4 credits, your state homeschool law may mandate “some” coverage of science (not a full credit but some amount of relevant content) every year. I've again suggested a 2-credit minimum to facilitate compliance with this (i.e., aiming for at least a half-credit every year).
The social studies – or social sciences – is often the area in which 4-year colleges get most specific. That is, they might specifically mandate 1 credit in World History, 1 credit in American history, a half-credit in Civics/Government, and (sometimes) a half-credit in Economics. But they generally don’t require that “world history” cover the entire scope of the subject (i.e., it’s possible to focus on a particular era for the credit). And if they have a more general requirement, a student might also (or alternately) study Geography, State History, Psychology, Sociology, Criminal Justice, and the like.
Other options again allow for much more flexibility in that any relevant subject matter can be studied and credited. But, of course, in the event that your homeschool law mandates “some” coverage of social studies (not a full credit but some amount of relevant content) every year, I've once again suggested a 2-credit minimum (i.e., aiming for at least a half-credit every year).
Though some coverage of health-related topics (to include physical education/fitness if desired) is explicitly listed within the text of some states' homeschool laws, the subject is rarely mandated by typical colleges. However, if you must address “health” every year according to the homeschool law, you should give a student credit (at least 1 over the course of four years, perhaps more if earned), which can be listed as its own sub-heading or under Electives. And, of course, those aiming for military enlistment or an appointment to a military academy will have additional fitness requirements that can be built into Health coursework.
Up until recently, the majority of 4-year colleges required two credits in a foreign language (i.e., two years studying the same language), and some still do. However, more and more colleges do not specifically require foreign language credits – or foreign language might be listed as a possible Elective rather than a particular requirement – and it’s not mandated for other post-secondary options.
Some – but not all – 4-year colleges require a Fine Arts credit – i.e., study of some sort in music and/or the arts. Rarely, 2 credits may be required. Of course, a student aiming for an arts-related degree will want to earn multiple credits in relevant areas. And, even if not required, earned credits in the arts can be listed as Electives. This is not mandated for other post-secondary options.
As I studied various college admissions requirements, I learned that most 4-year institutions – even the “elites” – require a surprisingly low minimum of just 15 to 18 high school credits. Of course, they generally favor students who exceed their minimums, and it’s worth noting – in the one and only nod I’ll give to institutional schools since homeschooled kids do “compete” with their kids for college admissions slots – that most coming out of institutional schools have earned 20 to 24 credits, contingent upon the way their school terms are organized. Now, depending on a homeschooled student’s pace of study, it is actually often very possible for him to earn upwards of 30 credits, but it would be wise – in order not to stand out in a negative way – to aim for at least 20 to 24 total credits. Thus, if a student following a 4-year college plan earns 17 credits in the required areas, he will need at least 3 to 7 elective credits, depending on what you set as his graduation requirement.
For those pursuing other options, my suggested minimums yield just 9 to 11 credits. And, technically, if you’ve fully complied with the provisions of your state's homeschool law, it is legal – though probably not wise – to graduate a child without even tracking credits or creating a transcript. However, awarding a diploma without a transcript or with as few as 10 high school credits and no electives would very likely stand out in a negative way to community/technical college admissions counselors, military recruiters, and potential employers. That would be poor stewardship of our responsibility to our kids.
Thus, you can use that minimum suggestion as a baseline and then – at your discretion, in order to maximize your particular child's holistic education – require more in any or all mandatory areas. And the beauty of pursuing something other than admission to a 4-year college is the flexibility to more freely delve into other areas of interest and passion, too. So, I recommend going beyond the minimum and requiring at least 20 credits for graduation, having the child accrue the additional (9 to 11 or more credits) via extra coursework in required areas and/or through electives.
In terms of what counts as an elective, the sky is really the limit. Electives can be earned as “extra” math, language arts, science, social studies, or health credits. Or they might include extra foreign language or fine arts, Bible/theology, computer programming, web design, keyboarding, filmmaking, culinary arts, clothing production, etc. Really, any area of study not counted via another credit can be turned into an elective by simply making sure a student has earned a half or whole credit in one way or another and creating an accurate, representative course title.The bottom line - the reason this article puts the words "graduation requirements" in quotes - is that, aside from a responsibility to comply with the exact text of your state's homeschool law, each individual home-based education program sets its own graduation requirements according to the convictions of its administrators (i.e., a child's parents or legal guardians). We don't (shouldn't) consider public school requirements to be our own. We don't need to borrow the rules adopted by local private schools. Instead, we need to embrace the legal authority given to us via the homeschool law and devote the necessary time and energy into researching what would be best for each child's long-term well-being and go from there. We must actively decide for ourselves instead of passively accepting some other entity's requirements. Whatever each child actually needs in order to successfully step into life as a young adult is what we should plan for and facilitate during his high school years.