Different Kids Need Different Credentials

Though the occasional political firecracker still flares across the night sky, as of mid-2014 it seems likely that most of the 46 jurisdictions that originally embraced the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will stick with them.

That’s a seismic development for American public education, but whether it produces a 1 or an 8 on the Richter scale remains to be seen. It depends on 1) the thoroughness of implementation, 2) the selection (and scoring) of assessments, and 3) perhaps most of all, the ways in which results revealed by those assessments affect the lives of real people and their schools.

Today all three are up for grabs.

The most important thing to know about the Common Core standards is that learning what they say you should learn is supposed to make you ready for both college and career, i.e., for a seamless move from 12th grade into the freshman year at a standard-issue college, where you will be welcomed into credit-bearing courses that you will be ready to master.

That’s the concept. It’s a really important one and the main justification for the heavy lifting and disruption that these standards will occasion.

Today, far less than half of U.S. 12th graders are “college ready.” (Never mind those who have already dropped out of high school.) The National Assessment Governing Board estimates not quite 40 percent are college ready. The ACT folks estimate 26 percent are college ready across the four subjects that comprise their suite of questions.

Literally millions of others go on to college anyway, generally into remedial—the polite term is “developmental”—classes and, often, to fall by the wayside and never earn a degree.

The Common Core is supposed to solve that problem by producing generations of high school graduates who are truly college ready. How can that happen unless the K–12 system radically alters what high school diplomas signify?

Today, those prized documents are won every year by enormous numbers of young people who aren’t anywhere near college ready but have met their states’ and districts’ course requirements with passing grades. In about half the states, graduates have also made it through statewide graduation tests that are typically pegged to an 8th-, 9th-, or at most 10th-grade standard of actual performance. Not even Massachusetts, our highest-achieving state on myriad measures, was so bold as to make the passing score on its celebrated MCAS test equate to true college readiness. That would have meant denying diplomas to far too many teens, lots of them from poor and minority families.

As the Common Core and its new assessments kick in, how will states handle high school graduation? True college (and career) readiness would mean that hundreds of thousands of today’s—and tomorrow’s—12th graders won’t receive diplomas. Politically, that’s simply untenable. Yet lower those expectations and there’s no reason for colleges to accept these high school credentials—and the main point of the painful CCSS shift will be rendered moot. That outcome one might term educationally untenable.

What to do? In my view, states have no alternative, for the foreseeable future, to issuing (at least) two kinds of diplomas. The one with the gold star will signal college readiness, Common Core style. The other one will signal much the same as today’s conventional diploma, mainly that one has passed a set of mandatory courses to the satisfaction of those teaching them.

This is akin to the practice for many decades (until 2012) in New York State, where a Regents Diploma denoted a markedly higher level of academic attainment than a local diploma, and it’s somewhat similar to the practice in today’s England, where you can complete your schooling with a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), but if you’re bent on university, you stick around to earn a more-demanding A-level certificate.

New York scrapped the local diploma for a reason. They didn’t want a double standard or a two-level society. They didn’t want schools to split kids into separate tracks. They wanted everyone to get a proper—and equal—education.

That’s surely the right impulse. But is it a realistic education policy if the single standard that everyone must meet is really, really demanding?

I don’t think so, at least not for quite a while. It’s possible that, over time, as young Americans work their way from CCSS-aligned kindergarten classes up through the grades and end up with 13 years of CCSS-level education, provided that their year-to-year promotions are faithful to the expectations of the standards, a state may be able to do away with the lower-level diploma and give everyone the kind with a gold star.

It’s politically correct to say, “I hope it works out that way.” But I’m unpersuaded that college readiness is the proper goal of everybody’s high-school education, and it remains to be proven that the Common Core’s academic standards are truly needed for success in myriad careers. That doesn’t mean we should water down the standards. It doesn’t mean we must deny diplomas to countless thousands. It does mean that we should, more like England, think of different ways of completing—and being credentialed for completing—one’s primary and secondary education.

I expect howls of protest from those who cannot accept anything more than a “single standard for all.” But much as I admire the Common Core standards and hope that they gain enormous traction across the land, I have never seen, in any line of endeavor, a standard that was both truly high and universally attained.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and author of Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools

This is part of a forum on rethinking the high school diploma. For alternate takes, please see “Hold Students Accountable and Support Them” by Richard D. Kahlenberg, or “Diplomas Must Recognize College and Career Readiness” by Sandy Kress.

This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Finn, C.E., Kahlenberg, R.D., and Kress, S. (2015). Rethinking the High School Diploma. Education Next, 15(1), 48-53.

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