High School Diplomas and Career and College Readiness: Time to Get Serious

Cross-posted at Education Week

In my last blog, I said that I would begin a series of blogs intended for states that decide they want an education system second to none in the world. This blog lays out a proposal for a high school diploma that really means something, one that signifies that the graduate who holds that diploma is ready to succeed in the first year of most state two-year and four-year colleges, and is therefore ready for both college and career, since most serious career education these days takes place in our community colleges. I will also show how once this new high school diploma is in place, it can be used to build an accountability system that holds our schools accountable for student performance, holds our students accountable for taking tough courses and working hard in school, and includes features designed expressly to improve student performance across the board.

These two key policies embedded within my proposal, one dealing with what it takes to graduate from high school and the other with the accountability of both students and their teachers for their performance, are two sides of one coin.  One defines what adequate performance means in very clear terms and the other provides strong incentives for both faculty and students to perform at the required levels.  In my mind, the drive to create an education system set to global standards begins right here. You cannot design a high-performance system unless you know what it is intended to achieve.  Nor can any student reach the standard or any teacher help the student get there unless they know what the standard is. Get the standards and the incentives for reaching them right and you are halfway there.


This sounds simple enough, but it is exactly opposite of how our system functions now.  Everyone, apparently, agrees that all students should leave high school ready for work and college.  But what does that mean?  Does “work” mean flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s or doing specialty welding?  Does “college” mean the local diploma mill, which will take the federal money of any student who brings it in or the state’s flagship university?  Did you know that many states leave it up to the local district to decide what criteria to use for granting a high school diploma?  Or that most require a certain number of years of math in high school, but that a high school course in algebra often has no algebra in it?  Or that few if any states require their students to have more than an 8th grade level of literacy to graduate?

College and work ready ought to mean leaving high school with at least the literacy levels needed to be successful in the first year of a community college program.  That’s because about half the students in our community colleges seeking some sort of degree or certificate are in programs designed to prepare them for the last two years of a four-year college program and the other half are there to get a two-year degree or certificate in a vocational area.  Our community colleges are the nation’s gateway to both college and work.

Here are some facts I would have you consider when thinking about what it might mean to be college and work ready.  The typical community college first year course text is written at the 12th-grade level, but the students cannot read it because the typical high school text is written at the 7th- or 8th-grade level.  Community college instructors report that they have to prepare PowerPoint summaries of the texts because their first year students cannot comprehend what they are reading.  They do not ask their students to write very much because they write very poorly and the community college instructors do not see themselves as teachers of beginning writing.  Very little knowledge of high school math is required to be successful in our community colleges, but the majority of incoming high school graduates cannot do the math that is taught in the first-year community college program, because they have a very poor command of middle school math.  We conclude that our high schools are graduating students in very large numbers who are not ready for a high school curriculum, never mind a college curriculum.

States need to create a new, performance-based, high school diploma that signifies that the holder is ready to be successful in the first year of a typical state two-year or four-year program.  That is admittedly a low standard, but it is a far higher standard than most high school diplomas are set to currently.  That standard should be expressed as the grades a student would have to get in their high school courses, the syllabi for which are issued by the state.  Those grades should be based on exams the state also sets, which should be based on the required courses.  These exams would be externally graded by teachers, but not by the student’s teachers.  The course sequences should be designed so that all the required coursework could be completed by students who were ready to take the exams by the end of their sophomore year, but all students in the high school would be expected to complete these courses with passing grades by the end of their senior year.

Students completing and passing the courses in the core curriculum would be well-prepared to take a very demanding academic program preparing them for admission to a selective college, like the International Baccalaureate, the Advanced Placement Diploma Program or the University of Cambridge “A” Level program.  Or the student could take a demanding vocational program after completing the core curriculum, either one offered in their high school or one offered by their community college in collaboration with their high school.  These vocational programs, unlike many now offered by our high schools, would not be for students with low academic skills, because these students’ academic skills would be much higher than those of today’s typical high school graduate, but for students who wanted an applied, hands-on kind of program that conveys high technical skills, the kind of program we see in the world’s top-performing vocational education systems such as Singapore and Switzerland.

In this system, a student could meet the college- and-work-ready standard at any time between the end of their sophomore year and the end of their senior year, depending mainly on how well prepared the student is coming into high school.  The standard is fixed and the time a student takes to reach it varies, the opposite of today’s system. High schools would be obligated to assess the skills of their entering first-year students and create programs for them designed to take them from wherever they start to the standard just described.  Some students who start out behind will need more time during the day and week than others to catch up.  Others might enter high school so far behind that it takes them three or even four years to get to the new diploma standard.  Either way, they would be leaving high school having met a standard far higher than the one they are expected to meet now, a standard that will open many doors now closed to them.

In this system, there would be no question about what it means to be college and work ready. All the evidence shows that when students know what they have to do to realize their own dream they will put in the effort needed to get there.  Many more students would be ready for selective colleges, but many more would also be ready for success in the state’s open admissions colleges and first-rate technical education programs.  We would be doing high school in high school, not in college, and therefore saving enormous amounts of money for both states and families.  We would have more brain surgeons and more specialty welders.  The middle class would swell and stop shrinking.  Employers would be much more likely to find the skilled labor they need.  Young people who now leave school with very bleak prospects would leave high ready for a full and rewarding life.

We should build a new accountability system around the new diploma.  High schools would be held accountable for the proportion of students who get the new diploma and how long it takes to get it; the proportion of students from protected populations who get it and how long it takes them to do so; the proportion of students who leave high school to go to community colleges who complete two-year degrees in four years and four-year degrees in six years; and the proportion of students who enroll in college prep programs and their success rate, as well as the proportion that actually get into college. All of these metrics would be reported in absolute terms, in terms that show year-to-year growth for students and for the school and in terms that allow the observer to compare the school to schools with similar student populations.  If you are a state that is serious about getting your students ready for careers and college, these are the things you should be measuring.

Many states are now considering using the SAT or ACT as their state test to determine college and work readiness. Such a system is no substitute for the kind of system I have just described.  One of the powerful features of this system is the way it is based on specific course designs.  Students know just what they have to study to succeed.  If the exams are essay-based, as they should be, the state should release the test questions every year as well as examples of student responses that earned high marks.  The real standard is not just the statement about what the student is expected to learn that appears in the course syllabus, but also the vivid examples of what good student work looks like.  In this system, students know what they have to do to get high grades, their teachers know where they are strong and weak and can help the students improve where they have to improve.  When you get SAT and ACT scores, they tell you nothing about the kind of work that gets high marks, what good work looks like, where the student did well and where she did badly.  It is all a mystery.  The best accountability systems are not designed primarily to administer punishments.  They are designed to improve student performance.  That is exactly what this one is designed to do.