Tie high school graduation to student attendance and passing grades

Peter Cunningham

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.

A little over a decade ago, Chicago Public Schools began tracking the number of freshmen failing two or more classes who had a 10 percent absence rate or more than eighteen unexcused absences in a year. Data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research showed that, once students hit this threshold, their likelihood of dropping out skyrocketed.

Today, thanks to this system of tracking freshmen attendance and grades, Chicago’s high school graduation rate is up more than 20 percentage points and is approaching the national average, despite having a student population that is much poorer than the nation as a whole.

The “freshmen on track” metric works because it is based on reliable data points that are unlikely to be corrupted. At a time when people are questioning the validity of high school diplomas, student grades and attendance could provide an answer to the question, “What standards should students meet to graduate from high school?”

Let’s start with attendance. High-school students are old enough to take responsibility for getting to school and doing their work. Attendance is an objective metric we already measure and, short of lying, is not easily corruptible.

We can partly blame parents if kids don’t show up, but we can’t hold parents accountable in any meaningful way, despite some alarming and misguided attempts that landed poor parents in jail for their child’s truancy. These cases typically involve younger children for whom parent responsibility is primary.

Arguably, schools and teachers share some responsibility for low attendance if students are not engaged, but again, it’s very hard to measure. Low engagement might show up in measurable ways like low participation in school activities or underachievement (low grades among kids with high test scores). Principals or teacher leaders can also assess engagement through observation.

But engagement is still hard to measure because it’s not objective and is easily corruptible if principals arbitrarily set the bar low. We cannot build an accountability system around levels of student engagement, even if it’s a worthwhile thing to assess and monitor.

The bottom line is that, absent extenuating circumstances like extreme personal trauma, if high school students don’t consistently show up at school, we should hold them accountable by denying them a diploma.

The other relevant indicator is student grades, although this is considerably more subjective. One teacher’s “A” could be another teacher’s “C.” One teacher’s “C” could be another teacher’s “F.” But even with variance in grading and absent outright deceit, grades generally indicate if a student is passing a course and doing the work.

A related question is: How do we know if a student is college-ready? This one’s easy: college entrance exams and passing grades on advanced placement tests. As we say in the music business, KISS—"keep it simple stupid.” High Advanced Placement passing rates and ACT/SAT scores are crystal clear, highly incorruptible metrics of academic success and college readiness.

As for “career-ready,” no one really knows what the term means. It could be tied to an industry certificate like a NIMS credential, which certifies readiness to work in manufacturing. We could also establish an agreed-upon set of work skills—like the Common Core for career and technical education—but it would no doubt be slaughtered on the altar of local control.

Instead, “career-ready” should be tied to what employers actually value, which is work experience. A student who wants to go straight to work after high school should acquire work experience in high school—proof that he or she can show up on time, hold down a job for more than a week, and get an employer to provide a positive reference.

Countless young people start working in high school—baby-sitting, burger-flipping, etc. High schools should take responsibility for helping eleventh and twelfth grade students find work, or for giving them work experience in the school building. Pay students to stock shelves, clean up science labs, mow athletic fields, or tutor younger students.

As for exit exams, there are two problems. First of all, it is wrong to deny a diploma to a student who shows up for four years and does the work, even if he or she tests poorly.

And second, exit exams merely create a barrier to graduation where none is needed. Colleges don’t need exit exams to determine college-readiness. They base admissions on grades, essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations—and, of course, test scores.

So, what would a diploma tied to attendance and grades mean for the American high school today?

First of all, it means that kids are responsible for showing up. This puts indirect, justified pressure on parents to do their part. It also puts some pressure on the school to keep kids engaged, so responsibility is shared.

Second, it means that grades—even if low—indicate that the student is doing the work. Teachers, parents, and kids take grades seriously. Policymakers should too.

Third, it means that, aside from accommodations for students with disabilities, high schools should teach all kids to grade-level standards through twelfth grade. They should not lower standards. Learning goals should be consistent, agreed-upon, and ambitious.

Finally, it also means that it’s up to kids and parents to decide if they are college material or not. Schools cannot and should not make this decision because they will invariably get it wrong. We have too much evidence of race-based tracking to go down that path again.

Ultimately, a high school diploma based on attendance and grades signals that the student isn’t a quitter. Diplomas could also be modified to indicate whether a student finished on time or through a credit-recovery program.

Based on these currently available and highly reliable metrics, districts and states can hold high schools accountable and parents are in a good position to judge school quality. They will know that graduation rates are based on the number of students meeting attendance requirements and passing their classes. They will know how many students graduate on time or through credit recovery programs. They will know the level of rigor based on the number of students taking AP courses and passing AP exams. They will know the number of students taking college entrance exams and getting “college-ready” scores. And ideally parents would also know how many students enroll in college and complete within six years, but this information is harder to track.

A high graduation rate also implies something positive about student engagement, school safety, and student morale—issues parents care deeply about. Essentially, by linking graduation to grades and attendance, parents can tell how well a school is serving all kids.

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post and a former Assistant Secretary of Education (2009–12).