Diplomas Must Recognize College and Career Readiness

States should adopt a two-tiered diploma system, in which students who have demonstrated college and career readiness receive a “diploma plus” and other graduating high-school students receive a diploma of the sort typically granted today.

Before making the case, I want to establish the context.

First, the future of our young people and indeed the economy of our nation require that an ever-increasing number of our graduates exit high school ready for college and career. We have considerable data on the knowledge and skills now generally required to get the better-paying, fast-growing jobs in the economy. And, sadly, we also have considerable data on how few students currently attain that level of knowledge and skills.

Second, most states have now set clearer, higher learning standards designed to help students prepare for college and career.

Third, a fundamental feature of the effective implementation of these standards is the creation and use of measures that assess success in learning that is predictive of college and career success.

Fourth, irrespective of how these measures are used in accountability, it is desirable, indeed arguably necessary, that key players know whether and to what degree students are on a path to college and career readiness as they progress through K–12, especially as they approach graduation.

Fifth, while we can define college and career readiness in meaningful ways, challenges abound. What level of college do we mean? What degree of readiness for college do we expect? Career? What exactly does that mean? Happily, there’s been quite a lot of work done on these questions by solid researchers and various state agencies with the help of educators and testing experts. On the basis of that work, I am hopeful that policymakers may reasonably be able to reach solid judgments about rigorous but realistic standards for readiness that may be used with broad support.

Sixth, the current diploma in most states today is not designed to assure or signify, nor does it come close to assuring or signifying, college and career readiness. We know this too clearly from data on remediation rates in colleges and universities, all the various data on college and career readiness, and most surveys of employer and higher-education views of high-school graduate readiness for postsecondary work and study.

So, let’s return to the decision the debate places before us. Should there be special recognition in a diploma to honor and reward a student whose proficiency is tantamount to college and career readiness? Or should there be just a sole diploma, one that assures and signifies that its holder is ready for college and career?

The best answer to this latter question, I believe, is no, and it comes in two parts: 1) however much the economy is changing, not all high-school graduates need to be ready for college and career, in whatever way that term is reasonably defined, and 2) practically, since roughly two-thirds of our high schoolers do not graduate college and career ready, today we would deny well over a majority of our students a diploma if we were to impose these more-rigorous requirements on the attainment of a diploma. So, as much as we may want ever-increasing numbers of students to graduate high school ready for college and career, amping up the criteria for attaining the general diploma to such a high degree, at least too quickly, is neither the right thing to do, nor is it practically or politically sensible.

Nevertheless, if we continue to give all graduates only the badge of the current diploma, we will badly serve our young people and our country.

Students who achieve at a high level and attain college and career readiness currently get no recognition in the diploma in most states. Employers and higher education get no signal from the diploma about the postsecondary readiness of graduates. Parents and educators who help students make progress and reach college readiness get no credit or recognition for their contribution to this important success. And where students do not reach this goal, parents and educators are misled into believing they have accomplished more than is the case. These are serious and harmful failings in a system in which the sole diploma does not connote college and career readiness.

We should move to a two-tiered diploma system, one with both the traditional diploma and a “diploma plus.” But, as we do so, we should value the attainment of both diplomas in a variety of ways, especially in how we structure accountability. Putting and keeping all students on the path to graduation must continue to be a central aim of accountability. Yet, leading more and more students in all subgroups to graduate ready for college and career must be central, too, and an increasingly important goal in accountability. We must value both goals, and we must help reward and honor educators and schools that achieve them. As we know from other successes in education reform if we hold ourselves to account, we can make real progress toward these goals as well.

While we may want to honor students who graduate in all sorts of appropriate ways, I believe we must make a special effort to grant those high-school graduates who are college and career ready a diploma that signifies and celebrates that readiness. Is achieving greater postsecondary readiness truly our valued priority? If so, we must lay down meaningful markers for achieving the goal, both for the students who reach it and the adults who help them.

Sandy Kress serves as Senior Adviser to the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University. 

This is part of a forum on rethinking the high school diploma. For alternate takes, please see “Different Kids Need Different Credentials” by Chester E. Finn, Jr., or “Hold Students Accountable and Support Them” by Richard D. Kahlenberg.

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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