As high school students graduate across the country, a new report by the Center for American Progress evaluated how many of them were prepared for college and life after twelfth grade.
In its comprehensive 52-page audit of State High School Graduation Requirements, the center states that by at least one measure, educational attainment in America is the highest it has ever been: more students are graduating from high school.
A high school diploma represents the satisfactory completion of education from kindergarten through 12th grade, and completion of coursework in math, reading, social studies, science, and electives from grades 9 through 12.
“The diploma is so important that most jobs in the United States require at least this credential as a basic prerequisite for employment,” the center says. “Yet, there is significant variation in the level of achievement the diploma represents state to state.”
The report evaluates quality of education, not quantity of graduates, suggesting increased numbers of diplomas don’t necessarily translate to college enrollment, civic participation, or gainful employment.
“High school coursework requirements for a basic, non-advanced high school diploma matter because they create, or stifle, what is possible for students as they progress through and beyond high school,” the report states.
Of the high school coursework requirements evaluated in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, the authors “uncovered major problems with the expectations states set to receive a basic, non-advanced high school diploma.” Most states high school graduation requirements didn’t meet their public university systems’ admissions requirements.
The analysis compares high school graduation requirements to states’ standard diplomas, including known college- and career-readiness benchmarks, like a 15-credit college readiness high school course sequence and at least three courses in the same career and technical education field.
Overall, no state met all measures of quality; only Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, and Tennessee met four out of five key measures.
Only two states require a 15-credit college-ready curriculum: Louisiana for its college-ready diploma pathway, and Tennessee, the report states.
Only Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, and Tennessee aligned their high school diploma requirements with their public university systems’ admissions requirements. (Alignment includes math, English, science, social studies, fine arts, physical education and/or health, foreign language, and electives.)
In Louisiana, a record 25,083 public high school graduates from the Class of 2018 enrolled in college in the fall immediately following graduation, an increase of 1,566 over the Class of 2017 and an increase of 4,626 over the Class of 2012, a 23 percent jump.
The Class of 2018 was also the highest achieving class in the state's history.
“Attainment of a high school diploma should signify to a student that they are positioned for postsecondary pursuits,” State Superintendent John White told The Center Square. “If the requirements for a state diploma do not match the requirements to enter the state university, we cannot make that promise. Alignment provides clarity that students should be able to depend on.”
“The Class of 2018, the first class to graduate under the aligned requirements, graduated more students in four years than any previous class and saw almost 5,000 more students enroll in college than their peers in the Class of 2012,” he added.
More graduates than ever before earned college credits and highly valued industry credentials, in addition to Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarships, making the Class of 2018 the highest achieving in state history.
Their achievements “reflect many years of relentless focus in our schools, and more progress is on the horizon," White said.
Louisiana has worked to strengthen accountability standards and diploma requirements; expanded its Jump Start program; has supported opportunities for students to earn postsecondary credits in high school (including dual enrollment, Advanced Placement (AP), College Level Examination Program (CLEP), and International Baccalaureate), and has aligned coursework with college admissions and TOPS requirements.
Black students for the first time in Louisiana history graduated at a higher rate than the national average.
“It is also worth noting that Delaware and Louisiana, given their policies in career pathways, could be the first states to meet all of the quality criteria,” the authors said. "Delaware came close to meeting the 15-credit college-ready curriculum but didn’t because it does not require chemistry or physics."
In 2006, Michigan enacted into law one of the most comprehensive sets of high school graduation requirements in the U.S.: the Michigan Merit Curriculum. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the state Board of Education, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state Legislature, and numerous education associations worked together to create the curriculum.
The Michigan Merit Curriculum requires high school students to obtain four credits of math; four credits of English language arts; three credits of science; three credits of social studies; two credits of world language; one credit of visual, performing and applied arts; one credit of physical education and health; and one online learning experience.
Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles told The Center Square that the curriculum “is crafted around the belief that all students will need extended learning opportunities beyond high school. As the learning skills for college and the workplace have merged, [it] helps prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in our global economy and workplace.”
“Preparing every Michigan student to be career- and college-ready is a priority, and part of the state’s plan to become a Top 10 education state in 10 years,” Alles added. “Aligning the state’s rigorous and comprehensive high school graduation requirements with the demands of post-secondary programs is key to achieving this objective. Michigan has seen a resulting improvement in the state’s graduation rate over the past three years, and a decrease in its dropout rate the past five years.”
Ben DeGrow, director of Education Policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told The Center Square that, “Especially in high-need urban areas like Detroit, we’re seeing nontraditional options like public charter schools prepare more young people for college and career success.”