In reconsidering the high school diploma, don't overlook dropouts

Alex Medler

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

It is a time to fundamentally reconsider what we think we know about high school graduates. But we should also revisit what the lack of a diploma tells us about non-graduates. Ultimately, we ought to expand our collective responsibility for both groups, get them to learn more, and invest in their development after they leave high school—with or without a diploma.

Most commentary focuses on the behavior of adult leaders and politicians. To the extent we talk about students, we focus on the future of those who earn diplomas and are cavalier about the consequences for those who do not.

Diplomas have predictive value to employers and higher education institutions; motivational value to students; and, for better or worse, cultural value that affects how we judge young people’s worth.

For employers and higher education institutions, a diploma can certify preparation and suitability. We should differentiate our understanding of preparation while de-coupling these certifications from the diploma. If we are going to invest more in young people who do not graduate, we should know as much about their preparation as we do about graduates.

For students, a diploma is intended to motivate attendance, good behavior, and all the work required to learn what is expected. For earlier generations a diploma was often a ticket to jobs that let young people support their families. The world has changed, undermining the likelihood of self-sufficiency for high school graduates, as well as the diploma’s motivational value.

Beyond motivational and predictive value, a diploma also has cultural value. Society’s judgements about personal responsibility are connected to our ideas about adulthood, and exiting high school serves as a proxy for adulthood.

As young people gain responsibility after high school, the paternalism of our public institutions decreases dramatically. When people leave high school, either as a dropout or a graduate, society lets out its collective breath, as if to say, “We did what we could. From here on out, it’s up to you.” This truth is explained to graduates in speeches at their graduation ceremony. Those who don’t graduate get the message more brutally. 

Graduates are encouraged to continue their development. Higher education, career training, and good jobs all involve some form of investment in participants. Graduates are more likely than dropouts to access these options and the accompanying investment. As a society, we should recognize our collective stake in the growth of all young people.

Clearly, too many people get a diploma who are not prepared for either work or further education. But our debates address this problem in isolation. Meanwhile, there are also people without a diploma who have knowledge or skills comparable to those who earned one. Admittedly, that is possible primarily because too many people in both groups are nowhere near prepared for what’s next.

In general, high school graduates are much more prepared than dropouts, but there have always been some graduates who got by with very low grades in classes with very low expectations. It doesn’t take much to get a D in many high school classes. The widespread lack of preparation for life is a bigger problem than our measurement failures; and our distaste for giving away something unearned should not lead us to abandon even more young people than we already do.

In research language, raising the standard for a diploma will prevent false positives. By strictly enforcing expectations, we will probably be more confident that every student with a diploma met the standard it implies.

But false negatives are also a problem. A false negative occurs when we declare something has not occurred, when in fact it has. Some students who fail to graduate may be able to perform at the level expected of graduates, especially if we remember how little we expect of graduates. If graduation reflects three things—mastery of content, the ability to follow-rules, and perseverance—we must guess which attribute tripped them up. Most efforts to raise standards give us confidence that no one gets a diploma who doesn’t “deserve it,” but these strategies may also increase false negatives.

To summarize the risk, if we do not differentiate in our certification of preparation outside diplomas, while we raise standards for attendance, there will be more people who do not enter the programs and services that support their continued growth even though they were prepared for the next stage.

Those suggesting we hold adults more accountable want to prevent people from gaming the system by handing out meaningless diplomas. But because a diploma doesn’t always mean much in the first place, and its absence is extremely harmful, I oppose reforms that sacrifice more kids to ensure we don’t give anything away. The personal consequences of not finishing high school are ultimately more important than determining whether some superintendent “cheated the system” to look good. Our solutions should remember that.

Alex Medler is a Senior Director at Safal Partners, where he directs the National Charter School Resource Center.