Some States Prodding Students to Graduate Early
To give students an incentive to work hard—and save education dollars along the way—some states are encouraging early high school graduation by ramping up curricula or giving college scholarships.
The policies emphasize proficiency over seat time. By giving students the green light to move on if they are ready, the hope is to bypass a senior slump, save families tuition money, and curb districts' instructional costs.
While a few states have rewarded early finishers for years, the concept is gaining momentum. New scholarship programs for early high school graduates are being rolled out in Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota, and South Dakota, and legislation is pending in other states.
Still, the model can face opposition when state money to districts walks with the departing students. And others are skeptical that students can be truly ready for college a semester or two early. With a growing emphasis on individual and online learning, as well as continued budget pressures, experts anticipate that the option of graduating early will continue to be debated in statehouses in the new legislative sessions.
"Requiring kids to be in school for 13 years is so 19th century," said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va. "Here we are in the 21st century, and we can have the ability to provide for the needs of kids on an individual basis. We should track kids by their ability to progress." Pushback from districts concerned about losing money should not be a barrier to change, he said. "The goal should be about what's best for the child; everything else follows."
Many of the proposals being debated are fiscally driven, without much thought of unintended consequences of early graduation, says Diane Ward, who directs state education policy at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit group based in Boston. Often, those programs do not adequately serve low-income and underrepresented students, and some lack clear requirements for college and career readiness, Ms. Ward found, along with fellow researcher Joel Vargas, the organization's vice president.
"Just knocking off a year of high school, without proper preparation and support, can do more harm than good," Mr. Vargas said.
The pair suggest states provide incentives to districts to accelerate learning for underserved populations in college-preparation programs, adopt clear college-readiness benchmarks so students leave when they are ready, and use the opportunity to be transparent about the level of achievement that high school students need to obtain.
The Education Commission of the States estimates that 23 states allow early high school graduation, but just a handful provide an incentive. The ECS examined whether students graduating early were held to the same expectations as students taking four years to finish and found, in most cases, they were, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a policy analyst for the Denver-based organization. To complete the required credits in less time, students took online courses, independent study, evening or summer courses, or competency-based options to demonstrate proficiency in lieu of seat time.
On the Fast Track
Ranshitha Devendran says she's always known she wanted to be a lawyer and made up her mind as a sophomore that she wanted to graduate after her junior year. "It's something that a lot of guidance counselors worry about—that I should try to enjoy my life and not hurry it up," said the 18-year-old, who graduated from Burris Laboratory School last spring and is now a freshman at Ball State University. Both schools are located on the same campus in Muncie, Ind.
"The main reason to graduate early," Ms. Devendran said, "was so I could go to college early, become a lawyer more quickly, relax, and then have more time for myself."
She was one of 15 students who received $4,000 last year from the newly established Mitch Daniels Early Graduation Scholarship. That money, along with a discount she receives because her mother is a member of the faculty at Ball State, covered most of her first-year expenses. Had she stayed in high school her senior year, Ms. Devendran said, she would not have been challenged and would have felt she was wasting time.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, state Rep. Pat Garofalo championed the Early Graduation Achievement Act that was adopted last session. It rewards students who graduate early with $2,500 to $7,500 to go to college or join the armed forces.
"There is a recognition that a high school diploma is a measure of knowledge, not a certificate of attendance," said the Republican. "It motivates kids to try harder."
The fact that the program could save the state $1 million a year since it doesn't have to pay about $9,000 per pupil in district aid for the students involved is "icing on the cake," he said. When the bill was being debated, there was some pushback that districts would lose money when students left the system early, but Rep. Garofalo says it's a small program in a $14 billion state education budget.
Idaho established a six-year Mastery Advancement Pilot Program in 2010 that gives students in select districts an average of $1,500 for each semester they graduate early for tuition in a public Idaho college. In its first year, the state awarded 27 scholarships.
"The greatest motivation was to encourage students to excel in their studies and make sure there was not a senior slump," said Melissa McGrath, a spokeswoman for the Idaho education department. As an incentive for schools, about a third of the per-pupil funding is given back to the districts when a student graduates early.
Since 1995, Texas has had an Early High School Graduation Scholarship Program that gives $500 to $2,000 each to about 6,200 students annually. But this year, the legislature didn't fund the program, after technical changes were made to education aid formulas.
"It's a very popular program," said Dominic Chavez, the senior director of the office of external relations for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. "The legislature was inundated with angry phone calls from constituents." Many students had planned their schedules counting on the money, and it wasn't until the money dried up that it became apparent how much it meant to families, he said.
Students are eligible for six years after graduation, so if the legislature restores funding, they could benefit down the road, Mr. Chavez added.
Michael Kaprelian, the president of the Texas School Counselor Association, says students who took advantage of the early-graduation scholarship included high achievers and others who were just burned out on high school. Although the money was appealing, he often advised students to stay in school their senior year to get more classes. "I never saw the financial benefits outweighing the experience, in terms of preparation for college," Mr. Kaprelian said.
Lack of Interest
Other states are struggling to get the concept to catch on.
While Kentucky supports dual-credit and early-college programs, early-graduation bills have died quickly, according to Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky education department.
"We are focused on ensuring all children graduate from high school college- and career-ready, and since Kentucky's graduation rate needs improvement, our resources are going to that goal," she said. "We don't actively discourage early graduation, but our primary concern is around those students who don't graduate or don't graduate on time."
Kansas state Rep. Jim Howell introduced legislation last spring to provide $3,000 scholarships for early high school graduates, but he can't get enough support. "This is one of the elements of our Republican platform, so I thought there should at least be a bill," he said. But he alone testified at a budget committee hearing.
Many students in Mr. Howell's legislative district in the south-central part of the state say they are unchallenged as seniors, according to the lawmaker. "Why let their brain turn to mush that last year?" he said. If parents approve, he wants them to have the option of moving on.
He's heard concerns, however, that students going to college ahead of schedule would be too immature. Also, graduation requirements vary by school district in Kansas, so it's complicated to work out a uniform plan for early completion and participation incentives.
"I need the public to understand the value and get excited, and then I would introduce it again," Rep. Howell said of his proposal.
Another early-graduation model—but one that doesn't provide financial rewards—is being piloted by the National Center on Education and the Economy. Excellence for All focuses on a rigorous core curriculum for the first two years of high school. At the end of the sophomore year, students are given an exam. If they pass, they have the option of graduating early and enrolling in a community college or doing college-prep work in their junior and senior years.
"It's a program for poor performers and great performers," said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the center, based in Washington. It gives struggling students the supports during the first two years of high school so they can bypass the need for remedial education in college, he said. Many students won't pass the exam at the end of 10th grade, but the school is then obligated to customize a program so they will get help where needed to succeed the next year, said Mr. Tucker, who also writes an opinion blog for Education Week's website.
About a dozen of the pilot high schools out of 21 nationwide participating this year in Excellence for All are in Arizona, where the nonprofit Center for the Future of Arizona has been tasked with overseeing the program.
Executive Director Sybil Frances says the emphasis is on defining what "college ready" means and making college accessible for all students. "It's not an elite program," said Ms. Frances. "The reality is I don't think students will graduate in droves early. This is not an easy program." But, she added, it's appealing to many students to work at their own pace and finish early, if possible.
(In 2007, Arizona established an Early High School Graduation Scholarship for up to $2,000, but the state's revenue shortfall led to the program's suspension in 2009.)
At the ASU Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, Principal Deborah Gonzales says students are responding to the increased rigor. The new program has been a turning point in the school culture, she said, with students becoming serious about going to college, and discipline problems decreasing.
"Our students never saw themselves as smart kids," Ms. Gonzales said. "Now, they are talking about themselves as smart and college-bound. It's a phenomenal change in the way kids perceive themselves."
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