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Are We Asking Enough of High School Graduates?

Graduation requirements are inconsistent state to state. That’s a problem

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There’s a graduation crisis brewing in the United States. As states submit their new ESSA accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education, they will be required to use high school graduation rates as one of their indicators of student performance. This leaves unaddressed a long-standing problem: Graduation doesn’t mean the same thing in every state, and graduation standards are often absurdly low. This does not serve students well.

Just look at the fact that nearly one in four college freshmen are required to take remedial coursework they should have mastered in high school. As some states look at raising their high school graduation requirements, they face a conundrum. What will happen to kids currently on track to graduate under weak standards once those standards are raised?

High school graduation requirements are inconsistent and often lax, writes the national policy director of Students for Education Reform.
—Getty

When states decide to enact new, loftier graduation requirements, you can read the tea leaves: Right before the year these take effect, a massive panic attack hits when districts realize they haven’t been adequately preparing their kids. By this point, it’s too late to follow through with the raised standards. Plans change again, standards are lowered, and we are back to square one, confronting the same problem.

Just this summer, Ohio got caught in this trap. Gov. John Kasich signed a somewhat weakened version of the state school board’s ambitious proposal to raise graduation requirements for the class of 2018. Despite this slight backtracking, the new graduation requirements will still push standards upward, albeit with plenty of room to grow higher.

Of course, we can’t allow waves of high school juniors to drop out because they are, all of a sudden, no longer on track to graduate. However, something must be done to stand up for the kids entering high school now, even if only at the individual district level. In Chicago, for example, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel championed a new (if controversial) requirement, slated to go in effect in 2020, that prospective graduates must produce a postgraduation plan before securing a high school diploma. Across the country, state policymakers must follow Chicago’s lead in forging the challenging path to drive standards higher for all kids.

Here are a couple things they should know:

"Expecting more of students in return for a high school diploma is a show of respect for the limitless potential of kids."

• First, poor kids are especially hurt by low graduation standards. Education leaders who care about advocating for low-income kids are often wary of pushing graduation standards “out of reach” for those students. To these folks, I say: If you weren’t calling out how poor children were being harmed by low standards before, you sure as hell don’t get to talk about it when an effort to expect more out of our public school system is being made. The reality is that poor kids and kids of color in this country were already getting left behind by public schools.

• Expecting more of students in return for a high school diploma is a show of respect for the limitless potential of kids. It is worth reminding ourselves that kids who don’t get a quality K-12 education end up burning through their federal financial aid on remedial college courses. Even kids who don’t think they want to go to college right now are still entitled to preparation should they change their minds down the road.

Some may argue that not every kid should go to college, and that high school graduation requirements shouldn’t hold college preparedness as the target. But most people who mention this went to college—often to a really great one. And while I appreciate the argument that not everyone wants to go to college, employers have high expectations, too. The bottom line is that kids need to be prepared for life after high school, and we’re not doing a very good job of this.

I want to live in a world where the opportunity for college is the norm for every kid, but where those students who want to pursue something else are still on grade level when they leave the public system. I don’t think that is asking too much.

And let’s not get it twisted. We aren’t talking about new graduation requirements that are so lofty that only the Ivy League-bound kids are passing. For example, one of Ohio’s new requirements for the class of 2018 to graduate is to score a “remediation free” score on the SAT or ACT, which indicates a minimum preparedness for higher education. In Chicago, public school students will simply be expected to show that they have a plan after graduation—a college, military, or gap-year program acceptance; or a job. These measures aren’t unreachable goals; they’re incremental increases to what were abysmally low standards.

If you share this view of our public school system, you need to join me in calling on every state to commit to pushing for higher high school graduation standards. Giving children a real chance at a strong future is the only way to truly respect the dignity of each child. Call your representatives and state board of education members to demand that they review what their state’s graduation standards signify about their expectations for young people.

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