Devaluation of High School Graduation Requirements

In most states, high school exit exams have disappeared. Photo courtesy of The Commons
In most states, high school exit exams have disappeared. Photo courtesy of The Commons

In early March, an article in The Economist examined a bewildering paradox.

From 2007 to 2020, graduation rates at public secondary schools in the United States climbed from 74% to an impressive 87% on average. Students’ grade point averages also rose significantly during this period as did the average number of course credits completed.

At the same time, however, SAT scores went down. Beyond that, U.S. students’ scores in math and reading on the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exam either held steady or declined.

Citing recent in-depth research, the article infers “that high schools are graduating thousands of students who, not long ago, might not have made the grade.”

The researchers, who looked at 3,000 schools in six states, concluded that these public secondary schools inflated graduation rates by about four percentage points between 2007 and 2020.

Part of the reason for this trend, The Economist argues, lies with unexpected consequences after the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002. NCLB “required states to track the share of students graduating in four years and set annual targets for improvement,” thus encouraging, albeit inadvertently, the devaluation of graduation requirements.

Sites that missed their targets were sanctioned and even threatened with closure in some instances.

Prospects like those led to “grading gymnastics,” as one social studies instructor commented. Teachers were often pressured to satisfy NCLB’s demands, which in practice led to providing students with more chances to make up work, offering more extra credit opportunities and lowering the bar for what constituted a passing and even a superior grade.

A second factor also helps to account for the paradox of rising graduation rates in a period of lower or static scores on standardized assessments, namely, the disappearance of high school exit exams in most states.

California abandoned its high school exit exam—CAHSEE, as it was known—back in 2017. According to EdSource, no replacement for that assessment was envisioned, and after the Golden State bowed out only 13 states continued to insist on exit exams for their secondary students.

Fewer and fewer high schoolers are now being required to prove their competence in core subjects such as English and math before receiving a diploma.

And the move to lighten graduation requirements persists.

Instead of boosting academic expectations, educational leaders in several states have often moved in the opposite direction of late. The board of education in New Jersey, for example, has lowered the passing score on the state’s high school graduation exam.

In addition, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York are now thinking about eliminating their own exit exams for high school students.

The Fresno Unified School District (FUSD), most likely in part because of fallout from the NCLB mandates, has been swept up in this development.

Take high school graduation rates. According to ABC30, they hovered around 80% in the district in 2012, but within a few years—by 2015, with the exception of continuation schools—they rose to levels close to or exceeding 90%.

And they’ve stayed at these lofty heights.

All of which contrasts starkly with the performance of students on the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) exam. As Bill McEwen reported early in 2020 in GV Wire, the district has ranked close to the bottom for several years when compared to similar school districts across the nation. This was occurring, he noted, despite enhanced funding coming from the state, and he criticized the district’s inclination to promote students to higher grades “even if they read at a third-grade level and can’t do simple math.”

Since McEwen penned those words, the district’s SBAC scores have continued to be less than satisfactory.

Various methods—some would label them gimmicks—have elevated grade point averages and, by extension, graduation rates at FUSD high schools.

Consider the widespread use of credit recovery in the district, which allows failing students to “earn” credits needed to graduate—without at the same time verifying that they’ve actually mastered the knowledge and/or skills of the courses involved. By sitting in a computer lab—sometimes for merely a few hours—such individuals are able to garner enough points to merit a passing grade, and the accompanying credits, in subjects like biology or American history.

In one case, a senior racked up more than 40 absences and more than 60 tardies in one class during a single semester. His grade was dismal: The points he’d accumulated added up to less than 10% of the total points possible. After the intercession of credit recovery, however, he stood at close to 50% completion for that course after less than three hours’ worth of online assignments.

More than 28,000 students have been able to use this approach to gain credits for courses since 2014, one district spokesperson said two years ago.

It’s clear that many districts across our country have fallen prey to this trend—of conflating rising graduation rates with educational success. The FUSD is hardly alone in this regard.

A third factor also helps to account for this new attitude toward graduation.

Lowering the bar for academic success—and the diploma that comes with it—is often cast as a means of supporting minority students, of providing them with opportunities to advance that they would otherwise be denied.

The New Jersey board members opted to lower the passing score for their high school exit exam because, in their view, the standards as they stood had “adverse impacts” on students. They were hardly alone in believing that such a strategy would be a boon for such pupils.

Evidence from a recent working paper, however, indicates that the opposite could well be true.

When some schools in North Carolina introduced more lenient grading policies, students with lower test scores tended to miss school more frequently and devoted less time to their studies. One of the paper’s authors, Professor Brooks Bowden, expressed skepticism that giving better grades—and, by extension, distributing more diplomas—helps learners.

His proposal: Establish high expectations. “People rise to the expectations you set.”


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