College & Workforce Readiness

Who Gets Hurt When High School Diplomas Are Not Created Equal?

By Catherine Gewertz — August 22, 2017 2 min read
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One of the uncomfortable truths of the high school graduation business is that not all diplomas are created equal. Some are strong, and signify that students are well prepared for good jobs or postsecondary schooling. Others are weak, and leave students unprepared to do much of anything.

A new study finds that U.S. schools hand out 98 different kinds of high school diplomas, and 51 of them fail to prepare students adequately for college or careers. A disproportionate share of those weaker diplomas go to students of color and students from low-income families.

The uneven quality in high school credentials begs for attention in the national conversation about high school completion, even as the country boasts an all-time-high graduation rate of 83.2 percent, the report says.

“High school graduation rates are an important but incomplete indicator of success. In addition to measuring whether students receive a diploma, it also is critical to gauge the value of the diploma itself,” says “Paper Thin,” the study by the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Allowing students to walk across the stage at graduation with paper-thin diplomas—that do not signify readiness for postsecondary education—is a disservice both to students and to the economic potential of the United States.”

The study analyzes the types of diplomas awarded in the 23 states that offered a variety of diploma options in 2014. Most of those states don’t track or report which groups of students earn the different types of diplomas, a lack of transparency that’s come in for criticism by other organizations, such as Achieve, that have long studied the variation in diploma types.

Gaps by Diploma Type

The Alliance research group focused on the nine states that track the diploma-awarding patterns—a level of detail it considers commendable. But the findings are less than heartening. State by state, the study shows huge gaps between the overall graduation rate—the kind you get from counting all types of diplomas—and the graduation rate of students who earned the kinds of diplomas that mean they’re college- and career-ready.

For example, in California, 81 percent of students graduate from high school in four years, while only 42 percent end up with diplomas that signify college- and career-readiness, according to the Alliance. In Nevada, 7 in 10 students get diplomas, but only 3 in 10 are well prepared to succeed in the workplace or in college.

The Alliance’s researchers defined a “college and career ready diploma” as a regular diploma that typically reflects the admissions requirements of a state’s public university system, requiring students to master four years of grade-level English/language arts and three years of math (through Algebra 2 or “integrated math” 3.)

Students of color, students from poverty, those learning English, and those with disabilities are more likely to end up with a weak diploma than other students, the Alliance report finds. Those gaps are much narrower in the states that make college- and career-ready diplomas their default or main option, according to the Alliance. In Arkansas, one of the three states that did so, African-American students were actually slightly more likely to graduate with a college- and career-ready diploma than their white peers.

A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of Education Week as Of 98 Diploma Types, How Many Measure Up?

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