Even though the national high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 81 percent, the diplomas those graduates received do not necessarily guarantee a bright future, according to new report from Achieve, a nonprofit education reform organization that works with states to raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability. The report, How the States Got Their Rates analyzes the various diploma options states offered students from the Class of 2014 and finds that the vast majority of programs did not prepare students for success in college and a career.
“When students walk across the graduation stage and are handed a high school diploma, they (and their parents) believe they’ve earned a passport to future learning,” the report says. “Yet in too many states, for too many students, the diploma is not an indication of college and career readiness—a fact that students may not know until they try to pursue their next steps.”
Only four states—Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee—and the District of Columbia require all students to pursue a diploma aligned with college- and career-ready (CCR) requirements. (Achieve considers a diploma aligned with CCR standards if the course of study requires students to complete at least three years of math (through Algebra II) and four years of grade-level English.)
Meanwhile, twenty-six states offer students multiple options for earning a diploma, but all of these states include at least one option that does not meet CCR standards, according to the report. In fourteen of those states, students pursue the CCR diploma as the default course of study, but students can choose to pursue a less rigorous diploma or opt out of individual courses required to earn the CCR diploma. In the twelve other states, students pursue a “minimum” diploma as the default option and must opt in to the CCR diploma program.
The remaining twenty states each offer a single diploma option and do not require students to meet CCR standards to earn a diploma.
“All states have CCR standards in mathematics and English language arts but not all states require that ALL students take courses aligned to those standards before graduation—until they do, too many students will be underprepared for postsecondary success,” the report notes.
More importantly, most states do not report the percentage of students within the entire graduating class and within subgroups of students who earn each diploma type, the report notes. Consequently, a state’s reported graduation rate “may mask which students earned which diploma options in the state,” the report notes. Among states that offer multiple diplomas, only nine publicly report the percentage of students who earn diplomas aligned with CCR standards, the report says. (The report’s state-by-state tables include specific details about each diploma offered by each state and the associated course requirements. The tables also highlight each state’s overall high school graduation rate and include notes about the extent to which each state publicly reports the percentage of students earning each diploma type.)
“The high school diploma landscape across the states has become incredibly complex,” Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, says in a statement. “When states offer options for students to reach high school graduation, we owe it to those students to ensure that whichever option they choose will leave them prepared for success in the future. Unfortunately, the lack of transparent reporting on student outcomes means that we have more questions than answers. … For many kids, these diplomas are tickets to nowhere that provide false assurances of academic readiness for success in college and career.”
How the States Got Their Rates is available at