Graduation Rates: What Does a Diploma Tell Us?

We should be cheered by the recent news about rising high school graduation rates. But some facts beneath the headlines also raise a number of important policy questions and suggest a real opportunity for some social entrepreneurialism.

US high school graduation rates hit an all-time high, 83% according to new federal figures. Since getting kids through secondary schooling is one of our K-12 system’s top goals, this is certainly good news. That diploma connotes important wins: graduates attained valuable skills and knowledge, they’ll have more professional opportunities, and our schools got them to the finish line of a long race.

Now the dark cloud. Unfortunately, high-school graduation isn’t always synonymous with successful preparation for post-secondary schooling. Today, about half of those entering higher education need to take at least one remedial course — that is, they need to acquire knowledge and skills they should’ve learned in high school. In fact, the average post-secondary student actually takes 2.6 remedial courses. Moreover, despite the increase in graduation rates, national tests are showing that test scores have been flat in recent years. We’d rather have kids graduate than not, so let’s be glad; but we need to temper our enthusiasm and ask the tough question: What does a diploma tell us?

It’s important to remember, though, that it wasn’t always the case that high-school graduation implied college-readiness. Not long ago, a diploma could quickly translate into a stable career. But over the last several decades, we’ve advanced the idea of “college for all.” If you have more education, you have more career options. Jobs requiring a college degree generally pay more. History also teaches us that when we don’t say “college for all,” those not put on a path to college tend, disproportionately, to be kids from lower-income and minority families. So expecting a diploma to mean preparation for college is part of a fabric of laudable intentions.

So policymakers, philanthropists, educators, and parents are faced with a tough issue. We desperately want every student to be on track for post-high school success. But there’s never been a time in our nation’s history when more than about one-third of adults attain a college degree. We also know that right now more than half of high school graduates aren’t prepared for college-level work. We know that there’s more than a trillion dollars of outstanding student-loan debt. And maybe a four-year college degree will never be the right path for every single student.

So what does all of this mean for K-12, especially for our understanding of what constitutes successful secondary education?

The national effort to answer this question has pushed “career and technical education” (or “CTE”) into the spotlight. The term is often meant to encompass the post-secondary options other than four-year college (e.g. two-year college, apprenticeships, certificate programs). CTE is an extraordinarily broad subject, and, to be sure, there are critically important moral and philosophical dimensions to it. For instance, has our good-hearted focus on “college for all” inadvertently undermined the dignity of vocations associated with other paths? Will a “college for some” mindset inevitably limit our expectations for certain boys and girls?

While those questions loom large, for the time being I want to argue that making progress right now requires smart, careful activity in both the policy and social-entrepreneurialism realms. State-level policy is of particular importance. Today, state leaders make most of the key decisions related to high school-graduation requirements, including which courses students need to complete and which tests they need to pass. These policies direct the behavior of districts, schools, families, and students.

For example, in order to graduate, should all high school students need to pass Algebra II to show they are prepared for college-level math? Should receipt of a high-school diploma be contingent on getting a score on the SAT’s reading section that makes unnecessary a remedial English course in college? Or might the diploma bar be slightly lower if a student passes a series of industry-certified courses and earns a credential indicating she is ready to enter a high-need, stable profession with good pay and benefits? (For example, see New York’s experiment.)

The answers to those questions implicate a wide range of related policy decisions—including the number, types, and passing scores on high school graduation tests; whether a state should have two diplomas (one indicating college-readiness, one indicating career-readiness); and how career certifications are vetted and approved.

The second matter is about the need for increased social entrepreneurialism and experimentation. In one sense, the “college for all” mindset simplified the job of state K-12 policymakers. They could ask institutions of higher education what constituted “college readiness” and then backward-map that set of skills and information on the K-12 system. Those requirements then become the exit-pass for all high school students.

But once “high school success” is expanded to include standards other than “college readiness,” things become complicated fast. Not only do K-12 policymakers need to understand the needs of an economy made up of countless industries and jobs, they need to do so in our current era when the future of the economy and its component industries and jobs is impossibly difficult to predict. Such uncertainty is industrial-strength kryptonite for central administrators. How in the world do you create uniform rules for an invisible and moving target?

An alternative approach would be to facilitate the diversification of paths (see this helpful report from SREB). That would mean trusting community colleges, four-year institutions, industry, nonprofits, and others to develop and test ways to help high school students successfully transition to the post-secondary world. This would in turn require a range of changes in policy, philanthropy, workforce-training programs, and more.

Big changes along these lines are already afoot in the states, and even more are on the way. In my view, none of these changes denigrate our recent approaches to high school graduation or impugn the motives of those behind them. Today’s and tomorrow’s work simply reflect evolving approaches to making sure every young adult has the chance to build a professional future that’s honored, fruitful, and rewarding.

– Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI),  president of the Maryland State Board of Education, and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

This first appeared on AEIdeas.

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