School & District Management

States Must Beef Up Diploma Demands, Study Maintains

By Lynn Olson — February 11, 2004 9 min read
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States should toughen their high school graduation requirements and tests to reflect the English and math skills that students actually need to succeed in college and in the workplace, recommends a study scheduled for release this week.

To identify what those skills are, the American Diploma Project analyzed employment data and conducted research with more than 300 higher education officials, front-line managers, and K-12 leaders. The individuals came primarily from Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Texas, five states that partnered with the project to do the research.

“Creating a High School Diploma That Counts” from Achieve. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The resulting set of benchmarks far outstrips what most states now require of their high school graduates. The benchmarks in mathematics reflect content from Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and data analysis and statistics.

In English, they demand strong oral and written communication skills, as well as analytical and research skills typically associated with honors and advanced- level courses.

Such ambitious targets may cause dismay among states that already are facing high failure rates on their high school exit tests and that are struggling to bring most students to the “proficient” level on state exams.

In Tennessee, for example, the state board of education is weighing whether to adjust its high school testing requirements for the class of 2005, based on a preliminary review that found large numbers of students are failing the exams, particularly those who are poor, speak limited English, or have disabilities. In addition to establishing a core academic pathway for all students, whether they are preparing for work or college, the board is considering allowing students who flunk the tests to show proficiency in other ways.

Douglas E. Wood, the executive director of the Tennessee state school board, said he agrees that states need to strengthen the core academic requirements for all high school students. But, he added, “at the same time, we have to be cognizant and aware that there are a lot of students who are not proficient, and in our state, there are no due processes in place for those students, who may not receive a high school diploma.”

But Peter McWalters, the commissioner of education in Rhode Island, which is also about to revisit its high school standards, said he likes the report’s emphasis on a long-term strategy. “It’s really a strategy to change instruction and expectations K through 12.”

In addition, Mr. McWalters pointed to the fact that the report is research-based and has already been thought through in other states. “There’s no reason for us to start from zero,” he said.

Core Set of Courses

While the study’s sponsors acknowledge that the benchmarks will be a stretch for many students, they argue they’re essential if diplomas are to carry real value in the marketplace.

Tips for Success

The American Diploma Project identifies a number of benchmarks spelling out what high school graduates should know in English and mathematics to succeed in college or the workplace. Following are examples from each subject.
English Benchmark: Language
  • Demonstrate control of standard English through the use of grammar,
    punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.
  • Use general and specialized dictionaries, thesauruses, and glossaries (print and electronic) to determine the definition, pronunciation, etymology,
    spelling, and usage of words.
  • Use roots, affixes, and cognates to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.

  • Use context to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.
  • Identify the meaning of common idioms, as well as literary, classical, and biblical allusions; use them in oral and written communication.
  • Recognize nuances in the meanings of words; choose words precisely to enhance communication.
  • Comprehend and communicate
    quantitative, technical, and mathematical information.


Math Benchmark: Number and Sense and Numerical Operations

  • Compute with rational numbers fluently and accurately without a calculator.
  • Recognize and apply magnitude (absolute value) and ordering of real numbers.
  • Understand the capabilities and the limitations of calculators and computers in solving problems.
  • Understand that to solve certain problems and equations, number systems need to be extended from whole numbers to the set of all integers (positive, negative, and zero), from integers to rational numbers, from rational numbers to real numbers (rational and irrational numbers), and from real numbers to complex numbers; define and give examples of each of these types of numbers.

“Boosting the number of students who are called ‘proficient’ without ensuring they also are prepared for their futures is a hollow exercise,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, Inc., one of three Washington-based groups that co-sponsored the American Diploma Project. The others are the Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

The more complicated question, he said, is when states should raise their standards. “I think that varies from state to state. As we note in the report, progress is going to be measured by incremental steps here, but if we don’t get started, then states will be forever selling kids short.”

Although the project focused on fundamental literacy and numeracy skills, the report argues, the benchmarks should inform the development of standards and curricula in all content areas.

The report, “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts,” which was set for release Feb. 10, lays out an agenda for states, higher education institutions, employers, and the federal government to bring high school exit requirements into line with the demands graduates will face.

Among other proposals, the authors recommend that all students take a core set of English and math courses that will prepare them for work and college. States should stand firm on requiring students to pass exit tests to earn diplomas, the report argues, but also should consider working with districts on additional ways of demonstrating skills that cannot be captured by paper-and-pencil exams.

“One of the things we hope this will do is help states at least hold the line on the tests they’ve already got and not lower the standards any further or put off the consequences indefinitely,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve.

The report also encourages colleges and universities to use high school tests for admission and placement purposes, and employers to use both test results and high school transcripts in making hiring decisions. In addition, the report says, states should conduct periodic studies to determine whether their graduation tests actually predict future success in college or the workplace.

States also should hold post-secondary institutions accountable for the academic success of the students they admit, the report says. And the federal government, through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, should require such institutions to report annually on evidence of student achievement, remediation, persistence, and degree-completion rates.

‘Broken Promise’

The release of the report coincides with renewed attention aimed at revitalizing American high schools, including major philanthropic contributions by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The study, which took almost two years to complete, was supported by a $2.4 million grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

According to the document, for many graduates, the high school diploma has become a “broken promise” that no longer signifies adequate preparation for further work or learning. Although more than seven in 10 high school graduates enroll in two- or four-year colleges, it points out, at least 28 percent immediately take remedial English or math courses. And fewer than half of college students earn degrees.

In addition, more than 60 percent of employers rate high school graduates’ skills in grammar, spelling, writing, and basic math as only “fair” or “poor,” the report says.

Every state but Iowa has academic standards for what high school students should learn. But the report argues that those standards typically reflect a consensus among subject-matter experts about what is desirable for students to know and be able to do, rather than what is essential for success after high school.

Converging Demands

To craft its benchmarks, the project commissioned Anthony P. Carnevale and Donna M. Desrochers, two researchers at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, to use data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the federal Department of Education to examine the relationship of education to employment and earnings.

Their analysis found that 84 percent of workers in well-paid professional jobs had taken Algebra 2 or higher. Four years of English at least at grade level emerged as the coursetaking pattern for employees in the vast majority of good jobs—those that can support a family above the poverty level and offer opportunities for career advancement.

Building on the data generated by the ETS study, two panels of curriculum experts delineated the content within the identified courses. That content was used to develop a preliminary set of workplace expectations for English and math. Those were refined based on feedback from frontline managers in such industries as health care, high-tech manufacturing, information technology, law, telecommunications, retail, and financial services.

At the same time, the Education Trust assembled English and math faculty members from K-12 systems and two- and four-year colleges in the partner states. The individuals reviewed the content of their states’ graduation tests, as well as national college-admission and -placement exams and the General Educational Development test, to identify the de facto standards for students.

Achieve and the diploma-project staff also examined the alignment between high school English and math standards and tests in the partner states. Higher education faculty members from a broad range of disciplines then used that information to define the English and math skills needed to succeed in freshman, credit-earning courses at their institutions, and the gaps between that content and state high school tests and standards.

The project then combined the two preliminary sets of expectations into a draft set of readiness benchmarks for work and college, including sample reading lists from Indiana and Massachusetts. Unlike many lengthier standards documents, the complete set of benchmarks and sample tasks is about 50 pages.

The project found a growing convergence between the intellectual demands in work and higher education. For instance, both employers and college professors emphasized correct English grammar and usage, effective oral and written communication skills, and the ability to define and research a problem and present a reasoned position or solution as essential skills. The biggest difference was in mathematics. Employers stressed the importance of accounting, budgeting, and data-analysis skills that were not underscored as heavily by college faculty members.

Henry Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, questioned whether the high-level skills spelled out in the benchmarks are essential for workplace success.

“It’s really difficult to find any evidence that these really high standards are absolutely necessary in the workplace,” he said. “Employers still emphasize personality traits, loyalty, reliability, punctuality, ability to work with other people, things like that.

“So there’s a part of me that says, ‘Well, yeah, I love the idea of all kids having Algebra 1, Algebra 2, data analysis, and geometry,’” he added. “But I can’t honestly argue that on the basis of what we know about labor markets.”

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