College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Creating a High School Diploma That Counts

By Michael Cohen, Chester E. Finn Jr. & Kati Haycock — March 10, 2004 6 min read
The educational standard that should have the most traction and greatest value—the high school diploma—has almost none.

After nearly a decade and a half of hard work, the standards movement is at a critical juncture. The standard that should have the most traction and greatest value—the high school diploma—has almost none. This will become even more obvious as educators, encouraged by the No Child Left Behind Act, work to bring all students to “proficient.” Until states hitch their exit standards to the real-world demands students will face after high school—as few now do—look for growing numbers of students to leave school proficient, but unprepared.

In recent years, a few athletic phenoms have made the leap from high school directly into professional sports. But savvy high school and college coaches are quick to tell their charges that, for every LeBron James, tens of thousands of young athletes lack the fundamental skills even to go on to the next level, much less skip college. Today, it’s time for teachers, parents, colleges, and business leaders to spread a similar message to young people. Many high school graduates are deluded into thinking they are well- prepared, simply because they take the courses, earn the credits, and pass tests required of them. They are awarded a diploma, only to learn later that they are academically unready for the real worlds of college and employment.

Given how little we expect of our high school graduates, it should come as no surprise that more than half of all entering college students never graduate, or that half must take one or more remedial courses before pursuing their degrees. One study estimates the cost to a single state’s employers for remedial training at nearly $40 million a year. Equally significant, more than 60 percent of employers rate high school graduates’ skills in basic English and math as fair or poor.

Nearly half the states have instituted “high stakes” tests that students must pass in order to graduate. Yet for all the harsh criticisms leveled by anti-testing advocates, in fact most of these tests aren’t nearly rigorous enough to ensure that those who pass them are prepared for postsecondary education or work. We need to steadily raise the floor for performance to the 12th grade level. In Massachusetts alone, we’ve seen how large percentages of students who were initially unready to achieve higher standards can be brought up to proficiency if the standards are kept high. The next step is to keep ratcheting up, not lowering, requirements. We cannot prepare citizens to swim in the adult waters of today’s turbulent global economy by letting them thrash about in the kiddie pool.

States’ expectations for high school graduation—course-taking requirements, standards, as well as exit exams—reflect an earlier era when higher education was an option for a select group of high school students, and when good jobs at decent wages were available to motivated but unskilled labor. It’s time now for the high school diploma to catch up to a world in which 90 percent of 8th graders aspire to attend college, some postsecondary education is a necessity for getting almost any job that pays a family wage, and just being a well-informed citizen requires analytic thinking and problem-solving skills.

Two years ago, with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, our three organizations formed a partnership to help states redefine the high school diploma. The American Diploma Project, in partnership with governors, business leaders, and K-12 and postsecondary educators in Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Texas, set out to identify the core competencies in mathematics and English language arts that high school graduates must have in order to enter and succeed in credit-bearing college courses and in decent jobs in high-wage, high-growth occupations.

A wide gap yawns between the knowledge and skills we have identified as essential and those that today's students are required to demonstrate.

The American Diploma Project asked leading economists to examine market projections for the jobs that pay enough to support a family well above the poverty level and provide real potential for career advancement. The project team analyzed the high school transcripts of employees in those occupations, and worked closely with more than 300 front-line managers and faculty members from two- and four-year colleges who teach a range of arts and sciences courses to examine the academic demands upon their students and identify the prerequisite knowledge and skills required to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing courses. The team also analyzed states’ high school standards and assessments, as well as college-placement exams.

Based on this research, we recently released a set of mathematics and English language arts benchmark expectations for high school graduates. The ADP benchmarks are ambitious. They reflect unprecedented convergence in what employers and college faculty expect from new employees and students. In math, they contain content typically taught in Algebra 1, Algebra 2, geometry, and data analysis and statistics. In English, they demand strong oral and written communications skills that are staples in college classrooms and high-performance workplaces. They also describe analytic and research skills that today are commonly found only in high school honors courses. Unlike most state graduation standards, which reflect a consensus among experts in each discrete discipline about what would be desirable for young people to know, the ADP standards are firmly anchored in the demands that these young people will face after high school. (“States Must Beef Up Diploma Demands, Study Maintains,” Feb. 11, 2004.)

A wide gap yawns between the knowledge and skills we have identified as essential, and those that today’s students are required to demonstrate in order to earn a high school diploma. No state can now claim that every student who earns a high school diploma is academically prepared for postsecondary education and work. In fact, by that demanding standard, our public education system produces large numbers of failures each year—and that’s among its graduates! As always, the students who pay the highest price for this arrangement are disproportionately low-income and minority, the ones who can least afford to.

States must take the lead, by replacing their current layers of standards, exit exams, coursetaking requirements, and college-admissions and -placement exams, with a coherent approach. Using the ADP benchmarks to get started, they should revise their high school standards as necessary to anchor them in the demands of college and workforce, then map backward to ensure that the K-12 curriculum moves students in a clear progression to these new exit standards. As Texas has done and Indiana is considering, they should make a rigorous college- and work-preparation curriculum the “default” curriculum in high school, not simply an option for the highly motivated. The experience in these states, and in districts such as San Jose, Calif., shows that students can keep up with the more demanding curriculum.

Continuing to award a high school diploma to students who cannot meet real-world demands is a guarantee that many will be left behind.

States must also measure how well students meet these tougher standards, and make the assessments count. States that have high school exit exams should keep them, and make sure they set a demanding floor. But “high stakes” exams aren’t the whole story. One test can’t measure everything, and it certainly can’t appraise some of the essential research and communication skills called for by faculty and employers. Hence, these tests should be combined with end- of-course exams, research projects, and oral examinations incorporated into instructional programs at the local level.

Postsecondary institutions must play a significant role as well. They should work closely with the K-12 system to ensure that high school exit standards dovetail with the requirements for being placed in credit-bearing courses. Then they should consider student performance on these assessments when making admissions and placement decisions, rather than continuing to require a separate testing regime. To encourage colleges to do their part, including providing adequate support to students who continue to require remedial coursework, states should hold them accountable for the academic success of the students they admit.

It won’t be easy to make these ambitious changes, and they certainly won’t all get made over night. There will be plenty of excuses to delay. However, continuing to award a high school diploma to students who cannot meet real-world demands is a guarantee that many will be left behind.

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