College & Workforce Readiness

High School Diploma Criteria Fall Short, Study Finds

Lower bar trips students at college door
By Catherine Gewertz — April 10, 2018 5 min read

Most state high school graduation requirements are so poorly designed that they trap students in a “preparation gap,” where they don’t qualify for admission to public universities, according to a new study.

In its April 2 report, the Center for American Progress analyzed how states’ requirements for a standard diploma match up with the admissions criteria at their respective state universities. The think tank found that in most states, in at least one subject area, students must exceed their state’s high school graduation requirements in order to cross the threshold of the public four-year institutions in their state.

The CAP study describes two big problems. Most state diploma requirements:

• Don’t meet admissions criteria for the state’s public universities. Noted by other researchers as well, this “preparation gap” can form a barrier to college when students find that the diploma requirements they completed fall short of the ones their state colleges and universities expect for admission.

• Leave too much up to the student. In many states, students can decide which core courses to take in order to fulfill graduation requirements. That means they could finish high school with a relatively weak lineup of classes, or courses that don’t match well with their postsecondary goals.

Against the backdrop of a series of graduation-rate scandals—like the recent one in the District of Columbia, where schools bent the rules to let students get diplomas—the CAP report is a call to keep expectations high, and make sure all students get what they need to meet them.

26Diplomas Preperation Gaps

The report warns that resources are a crucial piece of ensuring a smooth transition from high school to college. Rigorous requirements for all students are just the first step, it says.

All students must have the ingredients to succeed in tough courses: a good teacher, good curriculum, strong instructional support, and equal access to those classes, the study says. Any missing piece boosts the risk that some students will be moved through the system without being really ready for college or postsecondary training.

“Without sufficient resources to ensure that all students can meet rigorous coursework requirements, problems such as tracking students into less rigorous courses and using nefarious practices to get students across the graduation finish line will persist,” the report says.

The center found that states’ graduation requirements for a standard diploma—the analysis doesn’t include the “advanced” diplomas offered in some states—matched up with those of their state universities most often in English.

In that subject, 47 states’ requirements meet or exceed those of their universities. But in math, only 40 states require the courses that state universities demand for admission. The misalignment is most pronounced in foreign language.

Those gaps aren’t always easy for students to fill. They might have a tough time finding those classes on their own high school campuses.

Course Access Varies

The CAP report makes note of the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which shows that 1 in 10 high schools don’t offer Algebra 1, and 2 in 10 don’t offer Algebra 2. Education Week’s own analysis of the data showed that the course-availability problem is worse in high-poverty, high-minority schools.

Huge student-counselor ratios also tend to be worse in high-poverty schools. That increases the risk that students who need the most help figuring out the gaps between high school and college requirements might not be able to get it.

The new study is the latest in a swirl of reports pointing out that not all high school diplomas are created equal. “Paper Thin,” a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, found that U.S. schools award 98 different types of high school diplomas, and only half prepare students well for college or career. A report by Achieve, “How the States Got Their Rates,” found big variations in requirements for different kinds of high school diplomas.

The Education Trust examined the courses students finish for graduation, and found that only 8 percent finish a “cohesive” set of classes that prepare them well for work or college. High schools tend to prioritize accrual of credits when they advise students, rather than assembling a meaningful set of courses that are good fits for their post-high school goals, the study said.

College-Prep and Career-Tech-Ed

The Center for American Progress analysis looked at high school graduation requirements through another lens, too. It attempts to analyze the quality of the high school education that students receive by examining which states mandate inclusion of specific course sequences.

26Diploma How States Measure Up MAP

Those include three related courses in career-technical education, commonly called a “concentration,” and the classic 15-credit college-prep sequence (four years of English, three years of math through Algebra 2, three years of laboratory science, three years of social studies including U.S. or world history, and two years of the same foreign language).

The results show that most states are falling short in at least one area.

The center urges states to build more rigorous requirements into their high school diplomas, and also to publish graduation rates not just by subgroup, but diploma type.

It also suggests that states offer a distinct “career readiness diploma” that would include a three-course concentration, as well as the 15-course college-prep sequence.

Diploma requirements that fall short of public universities’ admissions requirements are just one sign that fundamental changes are needed in high school, said Laura Jimenez, who co-authored the report with Scott Sargrad.

“We need to rethink the entire high school experience,” she said in an interview.

“A big part of that is the expectations set for students: academic standards, coursework requirements, and anything else they have to do to meet the bar to get a diploma. When any of those are not rigorous or [are] fudged, it really is a marker that there is something wrong with the entire experience of high school.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2018 edition of Education Week as H.S. Diploma Criteria Fall Short, Study Finds

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