Let's make sure graduates actually know what's in the state standards

Elliot Regenstein

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.

The challenges of setting high school graduation requirements include several interrelated variables:

  • What threshold of accomplishment do we demand for awarding a high school diploma?
  • What measurement tools do we want to use to determine whether that threshold has been met?
  • Who’s responsible for enforcing that the standards are met, and what are the consequences of failure for that actor?

Improvement in all three areas is necessary if we’re going to properly serve students. So let’s start at the end and work backwards.

To date, states have generally defined graduation requirements in terms of courses that students are required to complete. Under No Child Left Behind, accountability systems generally pushed districts to improve in two areas: graduation rates and standardized test scores. The graduation-rates requirement was to incentivize keeping students in school and on track for college and career. And one purpose of standardized test scores is to act as a check on watering down the requirements, by creating pressure for academic excellence and measuring proficiency in a manner that can be analyzed across different groups of students.

Overall, the animating principle of high school graduation is usually college and career readiness. States generally posit that students who complete a certain set of courses should be ready for college and career. While at a system level, standardized tests are supposed to act as a prompt for excellence, there’s not typically a link between test scores and receiving a diploma—so those requirements may provide some balance for the system. But with some exceptions, they don’t generally provide that balance for individual students.

And it turns out that even with these two fixed points, districts have had a lot of ways to squeeze the balloon. The standardized-test-score requirement doesn’t really prevent districts from letting the air out of graduation expectations to help students meet them. State requirements have generally focused on Carnegie Units, and it’s not that hard to create passable classes that don’t really get students to whatever threshold of mastery the state had in mind when it set those graduation requirements.

Moreover, many districts in turn put pressure on high school principals to produce higher graduation rates. In a lot of instances this amounts to blaming the victim. By the time students get to high school, they already are on a particular trajectory—one that for some students will leave them short of graduation requirements. It would probably be appropriate for high school principals to be held accountable for the incremental increase or decrease in graduation rates from what would have been expected from an entering cohort in ninth grade—but that’s kind of wonky, and is also not particularly appealing to districts who are responsible for the overall rate.

So a fundamental part of the problem here is that districts are being held accountable for getting students across a threshold that they themselves play a large role in defining. As long as that is the case, the pressure to “game the system” will always be there. And as long as that pressure is there, some number of districts will succumb to it—either by defining the requirements for a diploma in ways that make it less meaningful, or by putting pressure on principals to produce numbers that only lowered standards or foul play can produce. If states are going to set the bar, they need to really set the bar in a way that lets districts focus solely on getting students over it.

What that means is that, when it comes to setting a standard for high school graduation, the state needs a definition that it alone controls. Fortunately, that dovetails well with an emerging trend of focusing on mastery rather than seat time. States can’t really monitor whether all of their districts are teaching rigorously in their schools (although it would be great if they could). But they can define mastery, and then measure whether it’s been achieved.

New York State’s Regents exams are the best example of this: content-specific assessments that show whether a student has deep content knowledge in a subject. Advanced Placement tests fulfill much the same function. These assessments and others like them show that it is practically possible for states, individually or collectively, to define a body of knowledge that students are expected to know—and then measure whether students know it. Indeed, states are already expected to have learning standards tied to college and career readiness, and those standards should be used to define the content students are expected to master.

Each state could define for itself how many subjects students would be expected to master and how much variation in subject choice is permitted, and then provide assessments in all the subjects it’s prepared to give credit for. A high school diploma would be awarded solely to students who meet those requirements, and district and school graduation rates would give credit only for students who are awarded that diploma. By focusing on mastery rather than seat time, districts could make better allowance for students to move at different speeds toward completion, rather than building systems based on the assumption that students will largely learn at the same pace. Districts and schools could be allowed to give out certificates to other students who meet some but not all of the standards, although colleges and employers would know that the state diploma is the true mark of mastery.

This approach would allow states to be flexible in defining what degree of content mastery justifies a diploma. It would be an excellent opportunity to rethink career and technical education, and would offer opportunities for mastery in CTE areas that employers value. The state’s higher education and employer communities could be actively involved in both defining the subjects in which mastery leads to credit toward a diploma, and in defining the level of rigor necessary to display mastery. Over time states could study the effects of the diplomas on college and workforce success, and adjust their requirements based on the data they generate.

Will this lead to a complete reimagining of the American high school? Maybe. And if it does, that won’t come from a series of state-dictated mandates. If states truly commit to defining the bar, then districts and schools (including charter schools) can focus on figuring out how to organize themselves most effectively to get students over it. Some will be slow to change, but others may experiment—and that experimentation could lead to valuable information that would help shape practices at other schools.

This approach puts the state, districts, and schools in roles that recognize their areas of institutional superiority. States are better than districts and schools at defining what colleges and the workforce need writ large. Districts and schools are better at figuring out how to educate children—and may also be better at figuring out the workforce needs of their particular region, so they could design their programs accordingly.

This proposal clears up the current misalignment of institutional interests, embraces the notion that college and career readiness is multifaceted, and comes closer to measuring what actually matters for students to succeed beyond high school. Aren’t those the things any good wonk would want to do?

Elliot Regenstein is a Chicago-based partner in Foresight Law + Policy.