Let's expect more from our high schools

Laura Jimenez and Scott Sargrad

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.

Research provides ample and persuasive evidence that even if students don’t pursue a college degree, taking a rigorous course load in high school leads to better outcomes later in life. But far too many students are deprived of this future. Thousands of students drop out every year or are disengaged from school. Only about half who make it to college succeed, a problem only partially solved by using rigorous standards in reading and math.

Prepared high school graduates possess academic knowledge and can problem-solve, organize, and manage time. They successfully navigate the transition to their postsecondary pathway of choice.

The twenty-first century American economy and the demands of equity can ill-afford graduates who lack these skills. States prepare graduates by (1) establishing rigorous college-, career-, and life-ready coursework requirements for high school graduation and (2) supporting local innovation to transform high schools into institutions of meaningful learning.

Indeed, one of the core problems is that state high school graduation requirements aren’t rigorous enough. They’re not aligned with the requirements of public four-year universities, they don’t require career preparation courses, and they don’t require elements of a well-rounded education. To be sure, some states—like Tennessee, Louisiana, and Delaware—are exceptions. But nearly every state has some area where they should improve their requirements to better align with college and work expectations. Ideal high school graduation requirements for a regular (non-honors) diploma would meet four basic criteria.

College-ready courses

Aligned high school & college courses

Career-ready courses

Well-rounded education

3 years of math up to algebra II;
4 years of English language arts;
3 years of laboratory science including biology, chemistry and physics;
3 years of social studies including U.S. and world history; and,
2 years of the same foreign language study.

The amount and type of coursework needed to graduate high school also qualifies students for public university admissions.

Require 3 credits in a single career and technical education field, preparing students for additional, in-depth study valued by employers. Alternatively, provide work-based learning experiences.

Require coursework in subjects like fine arts, engineering and technology.

Of course, reaching this ideal in every high school—especially in under-resourced ones—will take Herculean and coordinated effort by districts, communities, and higher education institutions. In support, states should:

• Audit, then provide, the eighteen-credit college- and career-ready courses universally.

Currently, only about half to two-thirds of U.S. high schools offer the full range of the fifteen-credit college-ready courses. States should conduct audits of teacher and course availability, especially for math, science, and career and technical education, to get a full picture of which courses students have access to.

• Prepare students to complete this college- and career-ready course sequence, and more accurately measure how well students learn.

Only about a third of high school students are prepared for college-level reading. This level of unreadiness often reflects gaps in meeting basic needs, which coordinated services can provide. Federal formula funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act can support these efforts, including those in Title I, Title II and Title IV.

To learn at the highest levels, students need access to intentional instructional design. However, existing credit accumulation requirements can present barriers to such innovations. Policymakers can amend policies or provide limited waivers to allow for small-scale piloting of efforts, setting the stage for potential future policy changes. For example, states can confer “innovation” status to traditional public schools with similar flexibilities that charters use; provide flexibility in credit attainment policies; and fund schools according to these new structures. Policymakers can also provide guidance on how districts can use existing federal and state dollars can support their work.

In addition, states can dedicate a portion of federal and state dollars to develop assessments that are aligned with new approaches to learning, like competency-based education.

• Use state longitudinal data systems to manage, report, and use good data to continuously improve and hold schools accountable.

States should design their data systems so that the data can answer sophisticated research questions, such as understanding college remediation rates disaggregated by high school courses. Such data help states develop targeted strategies for improvement. For example, Delaware’s remedial education rate for college students who took high-level math in high school identifies that the state has clear areas to improve.

Tracking and using sophisticated data provides an opportunity to partner with outside researchers to manage data, and is an especially helpful strategy to avoid the ethical concerns of controlling the very same data that is used to hold oneself accountable. States should also be using these data to measure annual school performance.

We must set demanding expectations of our high schools and provide them with adequate support to meet these ideals. Only when we expect more of and support our high schools can we reasonably do the same for our high school students.

Laura Jimenez is the director of Standards and Accountability at the Center for American Progress. Scott Sargrad is the managing director of the K-12 Education Policy team at the Center.