States Differ in Standard Diploma Requirements

By Hajime Mitani — June 26, 2007 2 min read

In a special analysis for Diplomas Count 2007: Ready for What? Preparing Students for College, Careers, and Life After High School, the EPE Research Center found that a high school diploma is usually not enough to secure a job with a decent wage; in today’s economy young people are typically required to have at least some college under their belts. Thus, it is important for states to ensure that students not only graduate with a standard diploma, but also acquire the requisite knowledge and skills to enter college and the workforce fully prepared. One way that states can do that is through their graduation requirements.

In fact, states have considerable latitude in setting their own high school graduation requirements. Two areas where differences between states can be seen are in (a) policies concerning total credits needed to graduate and (b) exit exam requirements. This Stat of the Week illustrates how states differ in these two areas for the class of 2007.

Total Credit Requirements for a Standard Diploma: Class of 2007


SOURCE: Education Commission of the States, “Standard High School Graduation Requirements (50-state),” 2007. Some figures adjusted by the EPE Research Center based on analysis of state documents.

Using data from the Education Commission of the States, the EPE Research Center found wide variation across states in the total number of credits needed to earn a standard diploma for the class of 2007. Credit requirements range from a low of 13 in California, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, to a high of 24 in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and West Virginia, with the U.S. average falling at 20.4. These figures do not reflect additional local district requirements permitted by some states. (“What It Takes to Graduate for the Class of 2007,” June 7, 2007.) Twenty-two states administer exit exams. Three types of exit exams are in use, namely comprehensive, end-of-course, and minimum competency. The comprehensive is the most commonly used exit exam, employed by 15 states. (“High School Assessments 2006-07,” June 7, 2007.)

State Requires Exit Exam for the Class of 2007


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

Which states stand out? In Alabama, high school students must take 24 credits and exit exams covering the four core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies/history in order to earn a standard diploma. Florida and South Carolina require 24 credits and state exit exams in two subjects—English and math. At the other end of the spectrum, high school students in Wisconsin and Wyoming are only required by their states to take 13 credits and do not take state exit exams.

Do higher credit requirements and various types of exit examinations correlate with increased rigor and better preparation for life after high school? Certainly policymakers and school leaders struggle with such issues. (“The Echo Chamber: Diplomas Count 2007,” June 19, 2007.) Factors not addressed by counting the total numbers of credits include the rigor of the curriculum and additional credits that individual districts may be allowed to add in certain states. With respect to assessments, some exit exams have been criticized for their lack of scope and difficulty, while others have been found to be overly comprehensive and taxing on teachers’ time. (“States Mull Best Way to Assess Their Students,” May 11, 2007.) While the impact of credit requirements and exit exams will continue to be debated, this Stat of the Week shows that state action on such issues has been far from uniform.