The Hollowing Out of High School Diplomas: We’re Not Doing Students Any Favors

In a new paper, Dr. Macke Raymond makes the case that rising rates of high school graduation for American students is a false positive of student success and graduates’ readiness for college and the workplace. Specifically, she contends, “there is a critical chasm between the rising graduation rate and the underlying knowledge and skills of large shares of degree holders.” She is absolutely right. And the problem seems to be most pervasive in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students and students of color.

While high school graduation rates across many American states continue to rise, in many of those states, increases are not attributable to improvement in student learning or the acquisition of skills and competences that show more students are ready for life after high school. Instead, unfortunately, rising high school graduation rates more often mean states have simply lowered the bar for high school graduation to the place where any student who remains continuously enrolled for four years qualifies for a diploma. Consider the facts: High school graduation rates rise as NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores, state standardized performance assessment scores, and college admissions test scores remain flat or decline. High school graduation rates rise as more students enter postsecondary institutions academically unprepared or under-prepared for credit-bearing college coursework. There is a disconnect.

Why would states lower the bar for high school graduation, cheapening the quality of the high school diploma, and more importantly, giving new graduates a false sense of preparedness for college and the workforce? As Dr. Raymond asserts in the paper, there is often political pressure for states and state leaders to demonstrate improvement in educational outcomes, and high school graduation is the indicator that tends to be easiest for schools and states to manipulate. But doing so is not only ethically wrong, it hurts our young people, our communities, and our economy.

Nowhere is this disconnect between the high school diploma and students’ mastery of basic skills more evident than in Kentucky, where the high school graduation rate is one of the highest in the country, yet rates of postsecondary matriculation and completion fall well below the national average. During my time as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education, we worked extraordinarily hard to set a minimum bar for high school graduation. Nothing unreasonable. We changed the graduation policy to give students greater flexibility in choosing courses and programs to align with their post-high school plans. That change was applauded by most. But the new policy also required that in order to receive a Kentucky high school diploma, students would have to demonstrate basic competence in reading and mathematics (just basic competence). Students could demonstrate that competence through scoring at minimum benchmarks on a state assessment, or they could demonstrate basic competence with a portfolio to be assessed by the local superintendent. The basic skills requirement was met with incredible resistance, and in fact outrage from some school stakeholders. The change was met with so much resistance, in fact, that it will likely soon be reversed, removing any bar for ensuring students have even the basic skills they will need to continue learning and acquiring academic and employment skills.

Parents, students, and employers expect that the grades and high school diplomas students receive are meaningful. They expect that when we say a student has earned a passing grade in Chemistry or Algebra II, that the student has demonstrated some mastery of the content in the course; not that the student had good attendance, didn’t cause too much trouble, and had a sweet smile. Similarly, when a student walks across the stage to receive a high school diploma, it ought to mean that she is ready for what comes next in her life, whether that is technical school, community college, four-year college, the military, or directly into the workforce. Handing a graduate a diploma when the school leaders and faculty all know that she lacks even basic skills is at best unethical. No one has done her favor. Instead, they have set her up for academic and employment failure and disappointment. We can do better. We must do better. Our students deserve better.

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