These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Shouldn’t a Diploma Mean Something?

Originally Posted by Denver Post on April 21, 2013. Copyright © Written by Vincent Carroll. Read here.

What’s a high school diploma worth?

By itself, almost nothing. Colleges have long known this. So has the military. That’s why both rely on independent tests.

Possessing a diploma is no doubt better than the alternative, but mainly because if you don’t have one then people assume you’re painfully illiterate. If you have a diploma but little else, they’ll only suspect that’s the case.

Such thoughts come to mind in the wake of alarming reports on the achievement levels of many Colorado high school students and the fact the State Board of Education has less than a month to adopt guidelines for graduation mandated a few years ago.

The draft guidelines for adoption, moreover, ought to send chills through some districts.

One way a student could qualify for a diploma would be to score 18 on the ACT English test and 19 on math. Considering that the average ACT score nationally is 21 and the average score of someone earning a two-year associates degree in Colorado is 22, that threshold may not seem over the top.

On the other hand, a report this month from the reform group A+ Denver points out, “The average ACT score for Denver Public Schools is 17.6. The average score for Aurora Public Schools is 16.9,”

Naturally, a lot of those students expect to graduate. What would happen to them?

To be sure, under the guidelines the ACT wouldn’t be the only way to prove yourself worthy of graduation. Among other options, you could also score 430 on the SAT verbal, pass an advanced placement test (3 or higher) or get 50 on the military ASVAB test — good enough to apply for officer school.

But none of these options are sure fire, either.

As the A+ Denver report notes, at seven Denver high schools, “fewer than one in four students pass the [AP] exam.”

Jo O’Brien of the education department tells me the task force that wrote the guidelines tried to select “multiple paths” for students of “approximately equivalent levels of rigor.” So seniors who wish to move directly into the workforce might choose to obtain an “earned industry certificate” from a professional trade group — if its content passed muster with the state.

Graduation guidelines are of course a reaction to evidence that in too many schools, students who simply come to class and rack up enough credits are given a diploma, whether or not they’ve absorbed the material. But setting meaningful standards for graduation is radioactive, too, because they could delay graduation for some kids — and the impact won’t be equal across ethnic groups.

The director of A+ Denver, Van Schoales, told me he’s heard some superintendents are irate about the ACT cutoff. “But we think it’s ridiculous to be graduating people who score 14,” he said, which is below the equivalent of what you’d need to enter the military.

And yet 40 percent of black and Hispanic students in Denver scored less than 15.

Of course, unrealistic graduation standards are in no one’s interest, as they’ll encourage cynicism, gaming of the system, and charges of bias. And to be fair, Denver has made real progress in recent years on its graduation rate as well as modest progress on achievement.

Absent a significant prod, however, the city still has “just one high school, Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), with a socially and ethnically diverse student body that has strong outcomes and a differentiated model,” A+ Denver reports.

And yet DSST is a regular target of criticism by dug-in defenders of traditional school design.

With the proposed guidelines, “districts are going to have to a lot more to get kids’ achievement scores up,” Schoales suggests. And that may be reason enough to support them.

E-mail Vincent Carroll at Follow him on Twitter @vcarrollDP