When it comes to graduation requirements, mastery matters

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A recent paper from the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) examined high school graduation requirements across the nation to determine whether they were aligned with requirements for each state’s public university system. By and large, the authors found a “significant misalignment” between states’ high school and college systems. This “preparation gap,” as the authors call it, forces students seeking admission to their states’ university systems to take additional coursework that isn’t required to earn a high school diploma.

To remedy this issue, the authors recommend that states require students to complete as part of their diploma requirements the fifteen-credit college-ready coursework that’s required by most public university systems. This includes four years of English; three years of math up through algebra II; three years of laboratory science, including biology and either chemistry or physics; three years of social studies, including U.S. or world history; and two years of courses in the same foreign language.

If there’s one big takeaway from the CAP paper, it’s that rigorous coursework requirements matter—not just for the students who are bound for college, but for everyone. Research shows that the fifteen-credit college-ready curriculum leads to beneficial outcomes for students regardless of whether they choose to go to college. Ohio’s coursework requirements for graduation are already pretty close to fulfilling this recommendation; all the state would need to do to be in alignment is change its laws to require graduates to complete two years of study in the same foreign language.

The fact that not all students want to go to college shouldn’t excuse schools from their responsibility to ensure that every student could go to college if they chose to. If John decides that he wants to obtain his paramedic certification rather than go to Ohio State, he has every right to do that. But John shouldn’t be forced to choose one option over the other just because he didn’t take the right high school classes. In short, CAP is absolutely right: Coursework matters immensely. But course requirements are also only half of the meaningful diploma equation. The other half is measuring how well students have actually mastered content.

To understand why, consider the process of obtaining a driver’s license. In Ohio, new drivers are required to obtain a learner’s permit and complete driver's education, which includes twenty-four hours of classroom instruction and eight hours of behind-the-wheel training. These requirements are in place to ensure that drivers know the rules of the road and can operate their vehicles safely. But the state doesn’t just hand out licenses to all the folks who have fulfilled these prerequisites. Instead, state law mandates that drivers also pass both a written and on-the-road skills exam. These assessments are in place to verify that drivers have actually learned the content knowledge and physical skills needed to operate a car. There are thousands of people each year who are disappointed to find that they need more training and practice before they can get behind the wheel unsupervised. The state rightly recognizes that it is in applicants’ best interest—and necessary for protecting other drivers—not to grant licenses to individuals who haven’t proved they can drive safely.

High school diplomas should be viewed the same way. Rigorous coursework requirements matter, but so does making sure that students have actually mastered the content of their courses. If the state fails to hold the line at academic competency, we risk sending students out into the world severely unprepared. Some of these students will struggle to obtain or keep jobs in companies that are looking for employees with solid reading, writing, and math skills. Others will end up in remedial college courses that are a waste of time, money, and effort.

Moreover, just as licensing reckless drivers can harm others, giving diplomas to young people who haven’t demonstrated mastery can also cost employers and colleges. For instance, an employer might hire a recent high-school graduate, only to find out that he or she doesn’t have the skills and abilities needed to truly excel in the position. As a result, the employer might need to let that person go, thus wasting time and resources devoted to that short-term employee. The same might be said of post-secondary institutions that spend resources (some public) to educate students, only to see them drop out when they’re unable to manage the rigors of college coursework.  

Back in January, the Ohio State Board of Education recommended that lawmakers extend softened graduation requirements to the classes of 2019 and 2020.These include the idea of allowing students to graduate without demonstrating competency on Ohio’s end-of-course exams—the state’s way of verifying that students have a basic foundation in the core academic areas before they receive a diploma. Such a move would be akin to granting a driver’s license to every person who could show that they had completed driver’s education, even if they hadn’t demonstrated their ability to actually maneuver a vehicle. Sure, the high school graduation rate will be high if the board’s proposals are adopted. Nobody will be disappointed, and adults won’t have to answer hard questions about why so many kids are struggling. But Ohio will also be choosing to hand out participation certificates instead of meaningful diplomas. And in an increasingly competitive global society, meaningless diplomas aren’t in the best interest of anyone.

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.