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What does a high school diploma in your state say about your graduates' preparation? This question leads you to data that will help you see what other states require for graduation and compare them to your own state's requirements.

National Data

According to a recent survey by Achieve:

    • 40 states require high school students to take four years of English to graduate.
    • 13 states require high school students to take four years of math to graduate.
    • 2 states require high school students to take four years of science to graduate.

    Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted English language arts and mathematics standards that reflect the knowledge and skills colleges and employers demand of high school graduates.

    Of these, 44 states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010, and three additional states independently have developed standards aligned with college- and career-ready expectations.

Data Source

Both Achieve and the Education Commission of the States (ECS) collect data on high school graduation requirements. Achieve surveys the states annually and plans to make its data available on its website. ECS follows the issue by monitoring state regulations and makes state-level data publicly available in its report, Standard High School Graduation Requirements (50-state).

Summary

Each state sets its own high school graduation course requirements, which serves as a measure for what a high school diploma means in your state. While a few states have no course requirements, most have created a minimum program of study that all students must complete to graduate. Many states also mandate end-of-course or graduation exams that students must pass to receive a diploma.

According to Achieve’s Closing the Expectations Gap report, in 2010, twenty states, an unchanged figure from 2009, and the District of Columbia have established requirements that all high school graduates must complete a college- and career-ready curriculum. These include mathematics coursework at least through the content typically taught in an Algebra II course (or its equivalent) and four years of grade-level English to earn a high school diploma.

How to Use the Data

Increasingly, policymakers, researchers, and the public believe that high school students need four years of math, English, and science to be prepared for work and college. Data on state graduation requirements offers the opportunity to see what other states are doing, and to figure out ways to improve your own course requirements.

How the details were measured

Achieve lists its data as courses per year. ECS reports the data in terms of Carnegie units—a measure of the amount of time a student has studied a subject—where one unit reflects one year of coursework.

Limitations of the data

Requiring a course for graduation does not guarantee the quality of the course or that the student will master any particular skills or knowledge. What students actually learn from these required classes varies widely, depending on the teacher, the curriculum, and the instructional materials. This information is not reflected in the data. The data also does not reflect the percent of students who take courses beyond the required curriculum. For instance, neither the ECS or Achieve studies look at the relative number of students who enroll in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

Also, graduation course requirements typically look only at standard diplomas. But many states offer alternative diplomas and certificates of completion to students who do not meet the state’s requirements. For some states, these alternative diplomas are essential offerings for special education and other students who cannot complete the state’s requirements. But for others, these alternative diplomas serve as a loophole that allows less-than-qualified students through the state’s education system. Moreover, under No Child Left Behind, students who receive alternative diplomas, such as certificates of completion, may not be counted as graduates when calculating a high school’s adequate yearly progress.

Key Questions to Ask

What is the curriculum for these courses?

Course titles don’t reveal how rigorous courses are. For example, many states require three years of mathematics, but do not specify whether students are taking college preparatory math (typically Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II) or less rigorous courses like consumer mathematics, which do not prepare students for college-level math. You should look at how many students and which groups of students are enrolled in the college-prep curriculum.

What are local graduation requirements?

Districts and local boards often set additional graduation requirements. It is important to evaluate these requirements to ensure that they help prepare students for college and the workplace.

Are there alternate diplomas for students who don’t meet the graduation requirements?

Many states offer alternative diplomas such as certificates of completion or technical diplomas for students who do not meet the state’s course requirements. It’s important to know how these alternative diplomas work and how many students are earning them.

Are there advanced diplomas for students who exceed minimum graduation requirements?

Several states offer advanced, honors, or college prep diplomas that indicate higher preparation. You should look at what these diplomas require and the proportion of students earning them.

Are courses aligned with the expectations of colleges and the workplace?

A recent study of high school graduation requirements by Achieve found that only nineteen states had aligned their standards with real-world expectations. You should ask how graduation requirements fit together with the rigors of college and the workplace.

Learn More

Besides Achieve and ECS, there are a number of other sources for information on high school coursework and graduation requirements. For example, every few years the National Center for Education Statistics conducts the High School Transcript Study. Using the background questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the study provides information about the types of courses students take, how many credits they earn, and the relationship between specific courses and student achievement. However, the results are only available at the national level. ACT Inc. also regularly conducts a national study of curriculum and coursework requirements. Called the ACT National Curriculum Survey, the study surveys thousands of students and teachers, asking them about academic practices and expectations. The most recent ACT survey was in 2006.

A number of organizations also collect data on graduation exams. The most exhaustive work has been done by the Center on Education Policy (CEP), which conducts an annual, fifty-state survey on state exit exams and their associated policies. The group also provides case studies of exit exams and how they affect students and schools. A listing of all the states that have exit exams can be found in CEP’s fifth annual report on high school exit exams called State High School Exit Exams: A Challenging Year. As part of its annual Diplomas Count report, the newspaper Education Week also collects data on whether or not a state requires students to pass a test in order to graduate. The report also lists whether or not the state finances remediation for students who failed an exit exam and if the state has an appeals process. More information on the annual Education Week study can be found in its Graduation Policies for the Class of 2010.

As for the ECS and Achieve research on course requirements, there are some minor differences in findings. One reason for the discrepancy is that the organizations use different data collection methods. ECS uses the database tool Lexis-Nexis to continually research changes in state regulations and updates the database shortly after a regulatory change occurs. Achieve surveys all fifty states every fall and typically does not make changes the rest of the year. The other reason for the differences in the data is that Achieve gives credit to states with a graduation requirement that will go into effect for future graduating classes. ECS does not.

Both ECS and Achieve also collect data on the course requirements regarding arts, history, and foreign languages. Such requirements are an important part of producing high school graduates who are well-rounded and prepared for both work and college.

If you are looking to raise or improve graduation requirements, Achieve helped establish the American Diploma Project, a partnership of thirty-five states that are helping each other raise academic standards, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability policies. In 2007, the group held a forum on ways to enhance graduation requirements. Much of the material from the meeting can found in the document, 2007 ADP Strategy Session on Higher Graduation Requirements. The resources include sample administrative codes, research summaries, and advocacy materials, all focused on boosting graduation coursework requirements.

Shepherding students successfully to high school graduation means keeping them in school in the first place. The Center for Public Education reports on the latest research on dropout prevention and what you can do to keep students in school.

Additional Resources

Demonstrating success:

Guilford County, North Carolina’s middle college program—Since 2000, this district has cut its dropout rate in half by helping disengaged and disconnected students stay in school.

Long-term commitment key to Kansas City (Kan.) schools’ success—Faced with a high drop-out rate and low student performance, the Kansas City (Kan.) School Board wasn’t interested in quick fixes. Instead, members opted for across-the-board strategies to improve teaching and strengthen student learning.