Why all high school diplomas are not created equal

Confronted with the paradox of a simultaneous rise in high school graduation and college remediation rates, researchers from The Alliance for Excellent Education examined diploma pathways across the country for evidence as to how well they match college or career expectations. They found that far too many students leave high school with diplomas that do not signal preparedness for what comes next.

The Alliance’s new report looked at all fifty states and the District of Columbia and found that there were 98 different pathways to diplomas for the Class of 2014. Slightly less than half were deemed sufficient to prepare students for college or careers (CCR diploma pathways). While college and career ready can be defined in a number of ways, the Alliance’s criteria for a CCR diploma are: 1) Any pathway that requires students to complete four years of grade-level ELA, three years of math through Algebra II or Integrated Math III; and 2) Any pathways promulgated by state institutions of higher education that fully align with admissions requirements into those institutions. All of their analyses follow from these requisites.

The most frequent reason for a rating of “non-CCR” for a diploma pathway was a mismatch between state-level high school graduation requirements and state-adopted content standards in ELA and mathematics. For instance, the General Diploma in Indiana—singled out as a case study in the report—required only 2 years of math and therefore was considered non-CCR by the Alliance. Two of the other pathways in Indiana required three years of math; the most rigorous pathway, four. Not that some Hoosier students earning the General Diploma didn’t make it to and through college, but the data showed that only 24 percent of General Diploma awardees in 2014 enrolled in college and that three out of every five students who did required remediation. Students who earned one of Indiana’s other three types of diplomas (all considered CCR pathways by the Alliance) were far more likely to enroll in college and far less likely to require remediation when they get there. In addition, the data showed that many states granted waivers of either course or assessment requirements for even their CCR diploma pathways for reasons unrelated to special needs. The number of students being granted waivers is unknown, but any undermining of CCR diploma requirements seems superfluous as well as misleading, considering the plethora of non-CCR diplomas already available.

Alliance analysts also took a deeper look at states that had multiple diplomas that included both CCR and non-CCR pathways with an eye to determining how many students earned each type. Nine states fit into that category: Arkansas, California, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Texas, and Virginia. From them we learn that 1) The rate at which students graduated with a CCR diploma in these nine states was substantially lower than the adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR). For example, Nevada’s ACGR for all students was 70 percent in 2014 while its CCR rate was just 29.8 percent. 2) Traditionally underserved students were less likely to graduate with a CCR diploma than their peers, the one small exception being Black students in Arkansas. 3) The three states whose CCR diploma was the main graduation pathway and where the non-CCR diploma was “deemphasized” or seen as a less-desirable alternative (Arkansas, Indiana, and Texas) saw far lower gaps between ACGR and CCR rates. 4) The other six states did not emphasize CCR non-CCR pathways and their ACGR/CCR gaps were considerably larger.

Black students fared worst among racial/ethnic subgroups with ACGR/CCR gaps ranging from 17.5 to 33.9 percentage points. ACGR/CCR gaps between students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities were also pronounced, with gaps ranging from 11.8 to 63.1 percentage points. These statistics are all fairly alarming, but many important questions remain out of reach. Did students opt for easier pathways themselves? Were they somehow “tracked” into them? What influence do teachers and guidance counselors exert on diploma pathway choices and when? How readily can students overachieve beyond minimum requirements?

The nation’s rising graduation rate in recent years has already been challenged as consisting in part of smoke and mirrors. The rate of new college freshman requiring remediation gives us a clearer picture of what really happens when the smoke clears and students are no longer the responsibility of the K-12 folks behind the mirrors. This study brings us fresh evidence that “graduation at all costs” is widespread. States must be exhorted to set the bar for graduation no lower than college and career readiness and must make that the default diploma pathway for their students, with rare exceptions for disability and such. Non-CCR pathways and waivers should be offered only in special cases. Perhaps it is a pie-in-the-sky wish for every diploma to indicate readiness for what’s next, but to make anything less than that that the primary emphasis of a graduation pathway is a disservice to students from the outset.

SOURCE: “Paper Thin? Why All High School Diplomas are Not Created Equal,” Alliance for Excellent Education (July, 2017).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,