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The high school diploma dilemma

The high school diploma dilemma
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How hard should it be to earn a high school diploma? The way high school diploma requirements are currently evolving across the United States virtually ensures that the nation will continue to backslide in social equity, economic well-being and international competitiveness.     

Despite evidence that our students’ performance is flat or declining on many levels, our high school graduation rates have continued to rise significantly over the past six years. This paradox may not be widely known or understood, as politicians and policymakers have consistently trumpeted the steady rise of graduation rates. The casual observer would be led to believe that public education is improving because more students are being granted a diploma. 

The truth is, in most states, there is a critical chasm between the rising graduation rate and the underlying knowledge and skills of large shares of degree holders. Many students, especially low-income students and students of color, are inadequately prepared to take the first step of college, training, military service or employment, let alone have the foundational knowledge needed to improve their lives in the future. 

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What gives? 

First, under political duress, many state education agencies and school districts are softening their requirements to earn a high school diploma. Standards for what high school students should know and be able to do have been strengthened in recent years, but high school graduation requirements have headed in the other direction. Setting the “should know” stakes goes only so far to ensure the “does know” results. 

Second, high schools often use a system known as the Carnegie Credit, which provides course credit based on hours of class time rather than on actual learning. This practice results in significant dilution of course content and the inevitable knowledge gaps that follow.  The practice is widespread: A recent report revealed that a third of advanced high school students never have exposure to, let alone mastery of, core concepts in math and physics by the end of their senior year. 

Finally, even when states determine strong coursework requirements, school districts have wide discretion to set the levels of learning needed to pass those courses. Therefore, students who are not demonstrating basic proficiency in  simplified courses are still able to amass graduation credits throughout their high school years.  

Meanwhile, many elected and appointed officials continue to give themselves a gold star for increasing graduation rates even as they have allowed them to be artificially inflated. Consequently, the diploma itself sends a fuzzy signal about its worth to students, employers and colleges. 

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To make matters worse, for students not heading to college immediately, states and districts are keen to offer Career and Technical Education (CTE) opportunities. Exposure to occupations and building employable skillsets are laudable aims — but only if the learning adds up to meaningful skills and knowledge in a potential vocation. Ideally, the rigor of CTE offerings would mirror that of college prep courses while providing applied experience. Generally, this is not the case, and it’s often more pronounced in schools serving low-income and minority students. CTE courses are not coherently organized. They focus on dead-end skills training or lead to positions that do not afford a living wage. The result is a perverse blend of “shop courses” or underdeveloped career exploration seminars that do not ready students to step forward after high school and beyond. 

The underlying cause of much of this problem is that low expectations for students have become the nation’s pandemic in the education landscape; that new ninth graders will be underprepared is often accepted as a given. Letting “D-” or “F” elementary and middle schools to continue in the same manner assures that high schools receive students who are woefully behind in their education. Low expectations continue throughout the high school years: Only a few states make a college preparatory curriculum the default option for students. Typically, adults judge most students as unable to handle a challenging course of study, even though the evidence shows that most under-prepared students will strive, and many will meet, higher targets if given the chance.  The track record of “beating the odds” schools make clear the critical role of adult expectations in shaping the success of their students — proving for us all that this is a solvable problem.

So what’s needed? States and school districts need mastery-based approaches to capturing and rewarding high school learning to ensure that students earn a high school diploma that provides a fair and clear signal of its value. Better and more frequent measures of high school students and courses would illuminate the pathways that students follow, and the benefits gained from them.  Linking course passing with known requirements for post-high school options will improve the success that holders of a U.S. high school diploma can achieve. In order to realize these things for our students, school systems leaders will invariably be placed in a diploma dilemma —strengthening requirements will almost certainly mean falling graduation rates in the short-term. 

But continuing along the current path of rising rates alongside lowered expectations may end up being a costly charade — one from which our students and our nation may not soon recover.

Margaret “Macke” Raymond founder and director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University.  She recently authored the policy briefing “The Diploma Dilemma” as part of the Hoover Education Success Initiative.