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What It Takes to Graduate for the Class of 2007

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What It Takes

In recent years, there has been a growing chorus of concern about the state of American high schools. Bill Gates has called them "obsolete." Governors across the nation have put high school reform on their policy agendas. Time Magazine ran an April 2006 cover story, entitled "Dropout Nation," discussing problems related to high school graduation rates. In its plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration calls for mandatory state testing in additional high school grades.

To provide context for understanding high school graduation rates and the high school reform debate more generally, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center collected data on 16 state policy indicators in four categories related to graduation: coursetaking requirements for obtaining a standard diploma, state high school exit exams, high school completion credentials offered by each state, and the age at which students can legally leave school. This online brief updates data reported in the 2006 inaugural edition of Diplomas Count.

Indicators for all 50 states and the District of Columbia were obtained from the EPE Research Center's annual state policy survey, conducted in fall 2006, and from a number of other sources including the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, and government agencies. The results indicate that policies related to graduation vary significantly from state to state and that, overall, policies have not changed dramatically since last year. However, given the strong momentum behind high school reform, further policy changes can be expected for future graduating classes.

Coursetaking Requirements

Earning a standard diploma demands different levels of performance in high school coursework across the states. From state to state, requirements vary both in the total number of courses students must complete to qualify for a standard diploma and in the distribution of those courses across academic disciplines. According to data collected by the ECS for the 2006-07 school year, students nationwide are expected to earn 20 total credits, on average, to walk across the stage at graduation ceremonies with a standard diploma in hand, the same number as last year. State course credit requirements range from a low of 13 total credits in California, Wisconsin, and Wyoming to a high of 24 credits in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and West Virginia. This brief focuses on minimum coursework requirements that apply to all students within a state. These results do not reflect additional credits that individual school districts may mandate on a local basis.

Six states—Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania – leave most decisions about course-credit requirements up to local school districts. Two other states—Nebraska and North Dakota—specify the total number of course credits required, but do not spell out expectations for credits in particular subjects.

Nationally, subject-specific requirements call for the average student in the class of 2007 to earn four credits in English and roughly three credits in each of the other core academic subjects to obtain a standard diploma. Credit requirements are more uniform in English than in other subjects. Thirty-seven states mandate that students earn at least four credits in English to receive a standard diploma, the same number as a year ago.

High School Exit Exams

States implement exit exams for a variety of reasons. One commonly cited impetus for such exams is the desire to verify that students earning the standard diploma have mastered the knowledge and skills needed for life after high school. Twenty-two states require exit exams for the class of 2007 and three states—Maryland, Oklahoma, and Washington—plan to do so for future graduating classes. The number of states linking or aligning exit exams with standards for 10th grade or higher has increased from six in 2002 to 18 in 2007.

According to data collected through the EPE Research Center's annual state policy survey, half of the 22 states with exit exams require students to pass only English (including writing) and mathematics tests to obtain a standard diploma. Nine of the 11 other states with exit exams call for students to pass tests in each of the four core subject areas: English, math, science, and social studies.

Students who fail to pass exit exams may still be able to earn a standard diploma in some states, either through an appeals process or an alternative route such as presenting a portfolio of academic work. Sixteen states offer at least one of those options for students in the class of 2007, one more than in 2006.

High School Completion Credentials

In attempting to meet the needs of a wide range of students and the demands of the modern economy, states offer a variety of high school completion credentials, including advanced diplomas and certificates of completion. Three states—Alabama, Georgia, and Nevada—offer more than one standard diploma option. In Georgia, for example, students are awarded either a college-preparatory or a career preparatory diploma.

To encourage and reward students who exceed standard requirements, 24 states award advanced diplomas or some type of formal recognition for additional or more rigorous coursework and other accomplishments, the same total as last year.

A number of states provide some form of recognition for students who fail to meet all the requirements for a standard diploma. Twenty-eight states offer alternative credentials, often called "modified diplomas" or "certificates of completion," for students with disabilities or those who do not pass exit exams. Twenty-six states reported having such credentials in 2006.

Minimum-Age Policies

Advocacy groups and policymakers have directed additional attention to the compulsory age for public school attendance in recent high school reform efforts. For example, Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based public-policy firm, has suggested that increasing the compulsory attendance age from 16 or 17 to 18 could reduce dropout rates.

State policies on the compulsory age for public school attendance vary. Differences can be seen in both the age at which students can legally leave school and in the types of exemptions or waivers allowed in each state.

The EPE Research Center reviewed data from the U.S. Department of Labor to determine the compulsory attendance age applicable to most students in each state for the 2006-07 school year. Findings show that compulsory attendance ages range from 16 to 18, with almost half the states requiring students to remain in school only until they reach their 16th birthday.

Students in most states may, however, legally leave school before reaching the minimum age generally required. Twenty-eight states have exemptions allowing students to leave school prior to reaching the typical minimum age with parental consent, to engage in employment, or for other reasons.

Similarly, in 42 states, individuals must be at least 18 years old before taking a General educational Development test, or GED. However, laws in all but one of those states also provide for exceptions allowing the test to be taken at a younger age (typically 16).


High school reform efforts will continue to be debated as governors and other policy leaders grapple with the economic challenges resulting from increasing globalization and a rapid pace of technological change. Developing a skilled workforce and increasing high school graduation rates, reported at just under 70 percent nationwide by the EPE Research Center based on an analysis of data for the 2003-04 school year, will continue to be key issues at both the state and the national levels.

Vol. 26, Issue 40

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Diplomas Count is produced with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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