A Road Map to State Graduation Policies
An examination of four key areas tied to high school completion shows wide variation across the nation.
Recent efforts to better prepare students for postsecondary education and the workplace have brought new attention to high school graduation requirements and related policies.
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For Diplomas Count, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center compiled data on 16 state-policy indicators in four categories tied to graduation: coursetaking requirements for obtaining a standard diploma, the existence of state exit or end-of-course exams, high school completion credentials offered by the state, and the age at which students can legally leave school.
The indicators were obtained for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The indicators were culled from Education Week’s Quality Counts 2006 report and a variety of other sources, including the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, and state education agencies. The results clearly show that policies on graduation vary considerably from state to state.
Requirements Not Uniform
While policymakers continue to look for ways to increase graduation rates, there’s also recognition that a high school diploma should reflect mastery of knowledge and skills that prepare students for life after high school. As a result, state coursetaking requirements are receiving additional scrutiny.
According to data collected by the ECS for the 2005-06 school year, students nationwide are expected to earn 20.5 total credits, on average, to obtain a standard diploma. State requirements range from a low of 13 total credits in California, Wisconsin, and Wyoming to a high of 24 total credits in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and West Virginia.
Six states—Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania—leave most decisions about course-credit requirements up to local school districts. Two others—Nebraska and North Dakota—specify the total number of course credits required, but do not define expectations for credits in particular subjects.
Breaking down the total number of required credits into the various academic subjects underscores differences in state policy. The ECS tracked requirements in the four core subjects of English/language arts, mathematics, science, and history/social studies, and in such other subjects as foreign languages and physical education.
Credit requirements are more uniform across states in English/language arts than in other subjects. But even in that subject, there is some variation. Thirty-seven states mandate that students complete at least four credits in English/language arts to receive a standard diploma. Six states—California, Illinois, Missouri, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—require students to earn three credits.
States generally require fewer credits in math, science, and history/social studies. In the typical state, earning a standard diploma requires three credits in each of those subject areas.
One Credential or Many?
In some states, students who complete high school have the opportunity to earn several different types of credentials. Students exceeding standard requirements may receive a distinct credential such as an honors diploma. An alternative credential may be offered for students who do not meet all the requirements for a standard diploma. Seventeen states offer both options.
*Click image to see the full chart.
States differ considerably in the variety of credentials they offer to students who successfully complete a high school program. The EPE Research Center reviewed state statutes and other documents on a range of completion credentials.
Seventeen states offer only a single credential: a standard high school diploma. Six additional states have multiple standard-diploma options.
Twenty-four states offer students exceeding the standard requirements special recognition—a distinct credential like an honors diploma, for example. In 26 states, students not meeting all the requirements for a standard diploma may receive an alternative credential, such as a certificate of attendance.
State Exit Exams
State tests required to earn a diploma, often known as “exit” or “end of course” exams, have been controversial since some states began using minimum-competency tests as a graduation requirement in the 1970s.
In recent years, the number of states requiring students to pass at least one state assessment to earn a standard diploma has grown—from 17 in 2002 to 23 in 2006. According to data collected by the EPE Research Center for Quality Counts 2006, a slight majority of states with exit exams (12 of 23) require students to pass only reading (including writing) and math tests to earn a standard diploma. Of the 11 other such states, most require students to pass tests in the four core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies.
The research center also found that 18 of 23 states with exit exams for the class of 2006 base their tests on standards pegged to the 10th grade level or higher, an important measure of the rigor of the exams.
For those students who do not pass state exit exams, other paths to a standard diploma may be available. Fifteen states currently offer students who do not pass the tests a chance to obtain a standard diploma through an alternative route, such as presenting a portfolio of their work, or an appeals process.
State policies on the compulsory age for public school attendance differ both in the minimum age at which students are permitted to leave school and in the types of exemptions or waivers allowed.
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. The age of compulsory attendance ranges from 16 to 18, with almost half the states requiring students to remain in school only until 16 years of age.
Many of the states, however, have exemptions that permit students to leave school prior to reaching the typical minimum age if they have parental consent or are employed.
Under such exemptions, seven states allow students to leave school at age 14. Similarly, while most states require individuals to be at least 18 before taking a General Educational Development test, or GED, all but four states have exceptions allowing the test to be taken at a younger age.
In an increasingly competitive economy, attention to the issue of college-ready graduation has intensified. The EPE Research Center’s review of state policy suggests that action on the high school front will continue.
Two states, for example, have required exit exams for future graduating classes. Course-credit requirements also are slated to increase in some states.
Other states are considering raising the age at which students can legally leave school, a change that some researchers say would boost high school graduation rates.
Vol. 25, Issue 41S, Pages 25, 29Published in Print: June 22, 2006, as A Road Map to State Graduation Policies