To fix the gaming of graduation requirements, we need to overhaul high schools and our policies governing them

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’s easy for us armchair-quarterbacks of education to cast stones at teachers and principals who give diplomas to students who didn’t earn them. But a more constructive conversation would start with a mea culpa: We have made a complete hash of the policies governing high schools and what’s expected of young people seeking to graduate from them. Until we fix that, we should expect the cheating and gaming to continue.

Our first mistake was to set sky-high goals around graduation rates, while allowing local officials great discretion in defining what it takes for students to earn a diploma. If this mistake sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same one we made when we set near-universal proficiency in reading and math as a national goal under No Child Left Behind, but let states define “proficiency” as they saw fit.

Both sides of this equation are off. As my colleague Brandon Wright pointed out recently, almost a third of students leaving eighth grade are achieving “below basic” in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For low-income students, it’s 40 percent, and for African American students it’s more than half. Roughly speaking, these students are entering ninth grade achieving at or below a sixth-grade level.

Getting almost all of these students to meet high school graduation standards within four years, as federal and state policies expect, is utterly unrealistic—unless the standard for graduation is set at a ridiculously low level, or winked at while being applied. And because most states no longer have graduation or end-of-course exams in place to act as a check—a worrying policy drift in its own right, and one that’s gotten far too little attention—local officials and educators can and do engage in the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Teachers can be encouraged, at least implicitly, to give D’s instead of F’s, or prohibited from giving students a “zero” for assignments they never turned in. Vendors of “credit recovery” programs—also little examined and full of greedy operators—can be hired to help “credit-deficient” students make remarkable (and dubious) progress in a short amount of time. And if that doesn’t work, states can greenlight other workarounds, as Ohio has been doing with its “alternative pathways” in recent years.

If we actually care about students meeting standards that prepare them for life after high school—and I believe that’s what most policymakers and policy wonks earnestly intend—we should rethink what’s reasonable in terms of graduation rates, while also stiffening our graduation requirements. In other words, we need a complete policy-180.

Regarding rates, schools that take in lots of students who are way below grade level will need, at minimum, more time to help them reach standards, meaning that a four-year cohort rate is inappropriate for them. It’s already common in many places to look at the five-year cohort, too. There’s probably a good case for six. Perhaps there’s also a way to apply “value added” thinking to the calculation of grad rates to reward schools that make strong gains with previously underperforming students.

And states need to find better ways to make sure students are actually meeting standards, probably via tests. If state policymakers are worried about denying diplomas to kids who can’t pass, they should pony up the money for those students to enroll in another year of high school until they do.


Our second big mistake in recent years has been to resist anything resembling tracking. We cling to the notion that all students should be doing more or less the same thing as they march from ninth through twelfth grade.

Our discomfort with tracking is understandable, given the racist and classist history of twentieth-century America’s “voc-tech,” which regularly sent children of color to low-level programs so they could learn to “work with their hands.” As recently as a decade ago, when Michelle Rhee’s team stormed D.C., they found a high school in Anacostia still teaching shoe-shining. It’s no surprise that tracking is a third rail.

Yet it’s also undeniable that the needs and interests of high-school age kids vary dramatically, and meeting those needs will require significantly different educational offerings. That’s true on the front end—the achievement level of students as they enter high school—and it’s true on the back end—their post-secondary plans and what they need to be ready for them.

Though career and technical education has staged a reputational comeback in recent years—including among reformers and politicians—it remains controversial to imply that, at some point in the life of a high schooler, it’s appropriate to ask them to choose to follow either a traditional college-prep route or a technical-training route. Instead we now say that students should be ready for “college and career” not “college or career” and make everyone take the same courses.

The U.S. is an outlier among advanced nations in this respect, and it results in a system whereby millions of teenagers sleepwalk through so-called college-prep classes, graduate (sometimes without earning it), get pushed into college (often into remedial courses), and quickly drop out. It’s “bachelor’s degree or bust,” and for the majority of kids, the result is bust.

So what might work better? Twelve years ago, the Tough Choices or Tough Times report made an intriguing set of recommendations that would make the American system more like those in Europe. It’s time to dust it off again. Here’s my spin on them.

  1. In ninth or tenth grade, all students should sit for a set of gateway exams. Think of them as high school “entrance exams” rather than “exit exams.” They would assess pupils on reading, writing, math, science, history, and civics—the essential content and skills that all students should be expected to know to be engaged and educated citizens. There would also be a component assessing students’ career interests and aptitudes as best as these can be gauged for fifteen-year-olds.
  2. Students who pass the exams would then choose among several programs for the remainder of their high school years—programs that all could take place under the same roof. Some would be traditional “college-prep,” with lots of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual-enrollment courses. Others would be high quality career and technical education offerings designed to lead directly into degree or certificate programs at a technical college. All of the programs could set entrance requirements that ensure that students are ready to succeed in them. And their selectivity would make them prestigious and appealing to a wide range of students. At the end of high school, students would graduate with special designations on their diplomas indicating that they are ready for postsecondary education or training without the need for remediation.
  3. Students who don’t pass the exams would enter developmental programs specifically designed to help them catch up and pass the tests on their second or third (or fourth or fifth) tries. Those that catch up quickly can join their peers in the college-prep or CTE programs.


It should be obvious, but these would be enormous shifts in the way American high schools function. Yet most high school traditions could continue unscathed, especially if these various pathways occur under one roof in comprehensive schools. The sports teams, the theater programs, the debate clubs—all of that could continue. But what students are actually doing between 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. would change dramatically.

It’s a lot to tackle. It’s harder than just chastising teachers and principals who graduate kids who can’t read or do math. But in my view, its time has come. Perhaps one of the men or women running for governor this year would like to give it a try.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.