Special Report

Few States Define ‘Ready’

By Sterling C. Lloyd — June 07, 2007 6 min read
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High school graduation rates are about more than just numbers. They show how many of a state’s young people are earning the minimum credential needed to enter postsecondary education or a broad cross section of jobs. And they are an important indicator of the competitiveness of a state’s workforce in a challenging global economy.

Given the economic transformations resulting from technological change and international competition, many business leaders and state policymakers want the diploma to signify whether graduates have mastered the knowledge and skills required for college, work, and life beyond high school.

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Graduation Policies for the Class of 2007 PDFExcel

To provide context for high school graduation rates, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center surveyed the states in fall 2006 on policies related to high school graduation, with a particular focus on college and workforce readiness.

Based primarily on that survey, Diplomas Count 2007 examines 18 specific policy indicators across three categories: definitions of college and work readiness, high school completion credentials, and exit exams.

We have also updated our nationwide analysis of high school graduation rates, using the research center’s Cumulative Promotion Index, or CPI, and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data. Results for the class of 2004 show relatively little change from the prior year. Overall, 69.9 percent of public high school students graduate with a diploma within four years.

The rates are considerably lower among historically disadvantaged minority groups and males, especially minority males. The analysis also found great variation in graduation rates across states and the nation’s 50 largest school districts.

The EPE Research Center estimates that more than 1.23 million students will fail to graduate with their high school classes this school year.

On Policymakers’ Agendas

Efforts to define readiness for college and work have captured the attention of state policymakers. But while the subject of readiness is on the policy agenda, many states’ plans are in the formative stages. We found tangible evidence of completed definitions of college or work readiness in less than half the states.

Eleven states define what students should know and be able to do to be prepared for credit-bearing courses in college. Another 14 states are in the process of doing so.

An EPE Research Center analysis of state definitions identified four major approaches used to define college readiness, which involve establishing and publicly identifying the test scores, curricula, competencies, or content standards students should achieve or master to be college-ready.

Lists of courses needed for college are the most common approach, appearing as an element of college-readiness in all of the 11 states with definitions. By contrast, narrative descriptions of the skills needed for collegiate success are used by just four states. Those descriptions emphasize both general skills applicable across academic disciplines, such as “thinking critically,” and skills related to specific courses or subjects.

At the policy level, debate exists about whether college readiness and work readiness are the same thing or distinct concepts. To shed light on that issue, the EPE Research Center asked each state to provide documentation on its definition of work readiness and to indicate whether the definition differs from college readiness.

Of the 21 states that define what students need to know and be able to do to be prepared for the workplace, 19 indicate that their definitions of work readiness are distinct from those for college readiness. Another 10 states are in the process of developing definitions of work readiness.

In general, states’ approaches to defining work readiness fall into four broad categories: standards, skills, coursework, and assessments. Some states indicate that they define work readiness on the basis of content standards for career and technical education programs, or cross-cutting employability standards meant to be integrated across subject areas.

Other states have embedded definitions of work readiness in policy reports or other documents that outline the skills needed to succeed in the workforce. In some cases, those documents build on the work of the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, or SCANS, appointed by the U.S. secretary of labor in 1990 to identify the skills needed for the workplace, and on other reports from national policy groups.

Generally, state definitions of workforce readiness simultaneously focus on broad sets of skills essential for a wide variety of jobs, on job-specific competencies, and on “soft skills,” such as dependability, self-discipline, and perseverance.

A number of states emphasize the importance of reading and mathematics skills as well as the training necessary to operate machinery and use technology. While most states focus on work readiness for high school students, a handful call on educators to teach work-related skills at all grade levels. Few states assess students on work readiness.

In trying to meet the needs of a wide range of students as well as the demands of a modern economy, states offer a variety of high school completion credentials, ranging from advanced diplomas to certificates of completion. Three states— Alabama, Georgia, and Nevada—offer more than one standard diploma.

In Georgia, for example, students are awarded either a “college preparatory” or a “career preparatory” diploma. According to data from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, the number of course credits required to earn a standard diploma ranges from a low of 13 in California, Wisconsin, and Wyoming to a high of 24 in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

The average state requires members of the class of 2007 to earn 20 credits to receive a standard diploma, the same as last year.

To encourage and reward students who exceed the standard requirements, 24 states award advanced diplomas or some other type of formal recognition for additional or more rigorous coursework and other accomplishments.

An EPE Research Center analysis of requirements for advanced credentials shows that all 21 states with statewide criteria award honors for accomplishments in core academic subjects; eight of those states also provide recognition for accomplishments in a career or technical program. The analysis also found that most requirements for advanced credentials fall into one of three categories: assessments, coursework, and grade point average.

A number of states provide some form of recognition for students who fail to meet all the requirements for a standard diploma. Twenty-eight states offer alternative credentials, often called “modified diplomas” or “certificates of completion,” typically for students with disabilities or those young people who do not pass high school exit exams.

High School Exit Exams

States have adopted high school exit exams for a variety of reasons. One commonly cited impetus is to verify that students earning the standard diploma have mastered the knowledge and skills needed for life after high school. Twenty-two states require exit exams for the class of 2007, and three states—Maryland, Oklahoma, and Washington—plan to do so for future graduating classes.

The number of states basing exit exams on standards at the 10th grade level or higher has increased from six in 2002 to 18 in 2007. Over that time, the number of states financing remediation for students who fail exit exams has remained about the same, growing from 10 states in 2002 to 12 states in 2007.

Action on the readiness agenda is likely to increase as more states seek to connect high school with postsecondary education and the workplace.

Whether through P-16 councils—which draw together representatives from preschool through college—or through such multistate networks as the American Diploma Project, an effort to better prepare students for life after high school, states are seeking to involve higher education and the business community in initiatives aimed not only at increasing the numbers of students who graduate from high school, but also at graduating more students who are ready for college and work.


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