Opinion
Every Student Succeeds Act Opinion

Are We Asking Enough of High School Graduates?

By Jon Hebert — July 19, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

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.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Every Student Succeeds Act Biden Education Department Approves One Request to Cancel State Tests But Rejects Others
Officials will allow D.C. to cancel tests. They denied similar requests from two other states and approved less extensive waiver requests.
6 min read
Image of students taking a test.
smolaw11/iStock/Getty
Every Student Succeeds Act Republicans Tell Miguel Cardona His Plan for ESSA Waivers Seems to Violate the Law
The Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't permit the education secretary to seek certain data he's asking for, the two GOP lawmakers say.
4 min read
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, left, listens as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, center, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, left, listens as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, center, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/AP
Every Student Succeeds Act How Will ESSA Hold Up During COVID-19? Pandemic Tests the Law's Resilience
Lawmakers designed ESSA to limit mandates covering issues like how tests are used. Will that affect how well the law survives the pandemic?
6 min read
Every Student Succeeds Act Betsy DeVos Tells States Not to Expect Waivers From Annual Tests
The tests required by federal law are crucial to helping schools respond to the coronavirus pandemic and help vulnerable students, the education secretary said in a letter to chief state school officers.
3 min read