College & Workforce Readiness

With 95 Kinds of High School Diplomas, What Does ‘Graduation’ Mean?

By Catherine Gewertz — November 03, 2016 2 min read
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Graduating from high school is a milestone in students’ lives. But those diplomas can mean very different things from state to state and district to district. They can indicate that students mastered challenging college-prep courses, cruised through a series of watered-down classes, or lots of things in between.

A new report tries to quantify that variation. The latest edition of “How the States Got Their Rates,” by the group Achieve, surveyed all the states and found that 95 different kinds of diplomas were conferred on graduating students in 2015. The analysis focuses on how many types of diplomas were available and the coursework and tests that students must complete to earn each type. (The study examines only math and English/language arts coursework. All the states’ coursework requirements for their various kinds of diplomas are here.)

Achieve did the same analysis for 2014 and found 93 kinds of diplomas were handed out to students. It’s part of the organization’s ongoing push to draw attention to the real variation in students’ accomplishments, even as people cheer a rising high school graduation rate.

As states report their grad rates, they rarely disclose the complexities of how many students earn each kind of diploma, Achieve has found. That makes it hard to analyze how many are getting a rigorous high school education that sets them up them well for college or work, and how many are leaving school ill-prepared for the future.

“When states offer students anything other than a college- and career-ready diploma option, we owe it to students to ensure that whichever option they choose will leave them prepared to pursue the future of their choosing after high school,” Sandy Boyd, Achieve’s chief operating officer, says in a press release accompanying the new report.

Eight states have set the bar high, expecting all students to complete a “college-and career-ready” set of courses—at least three years of math, through Algebra 2, and four years of college-prep English—in order to graduate. Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee fell into this category in 2014 and 2015. Minnesota, Nebraska and West Virginia joined that list in 2015.

Sixteen states don’t offer any kind of diploma that requires students to complete the college- and career-ready math and English sequence Achieve recommends. In 27 states, there are multiple diploma options, and at least one of those options in each state allows students to graduate without completing Achieve’s recommended math and English minimums.

Achieve wants to see states do a better job of explaining their various diploma options to parents and students, and to publish “accessible and clear” information about the proportions of students who earn the various kinds of diplomas. Disaggregating those numbers by student subgroup, and pairing them with information about which students are opting out of college- and career-ready diplomas in states that allow them to do so, would shed valuable light on what diplomas mean in each state, Achieve argues.

For more stories about high school graduation rates, see:

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.