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

Is a Colorado high school diploma really worth anything?

By Van Schoales

In 2013 the Colorado Department of Education sat down to take a look at what a high school diploma in Colorado was worth. In releasing the first recommendation of graduation guidelines, the State Board recognized students will need to function in “a modern information dependent society,” where there is a need “for a ‘floor’ of competency regardless of future work interests.” In other words, it is no long enough to know basic arithmetic because most menial jobs have gone the way of the hand saw. The Board called for a Colorado high school diploma that signaled a graduate’s competency in the K-12 academic standards, rather than merely completion of seat‐time requirements. As the Denver Post pointed out in an article yesterday, we are one of three states with no standards.

As we pointed out here [High School report] diplomas don’t currently signal college readiness, the bar that most believe high school grads should meet (even if they choose another career path). For example, in Denver 60% of high school graduates that went to college required remedial classes (and just half of all Denver graduates enroll in college). In fact it’s clear across the state, given AP pass rates, dropout rates, the small percentage of college-bound students, and remedial education needs, that we need to better understand what a high school diploma is actually worth.

Think about the high school diplomas distributed across Colorado as currency. Some diplomas are dollars, others are pounds, or pesos, or yen, or rupees…in fact, there are 178 different currencies or high school diplomas, one for each district in the state.  And unlike the modern exchange rate system, which tells us that that a dollar is worth 1.13 euros, we have no way to know if a high school diploma in one district is worth the same as a high school diploma in the district 50 miles away. The real losers in this game are students who graduate from high school with the conviction that the diploma in their hand means they are as accomplished as someone from across the state. It does not.

We need a gold standard for high school diplomas—standards that truly prepare our students to confront the challenges they’ll face either in the college classroom or in the workforce.

The state board set out to define what the value of a Colorado high school diploma should be, deciding to create some semblance of minimum requirements to graduate. They passed rules intended to approximate a basic level of college and career readiness. They said a student could earn a diploma if he or she got an 18/19 on the ACT (~40th percentile) OR a 3 (passing grade) on an advanced placement exam, OR a 50 on the ASVAB (score that symbolizes “aptitude to develop a career in the military that can be carried to civilian life and opens all branches of the military to the student”), OR a C- in a concurrent enrollment class, OR a 3 on IB, OR a 4 on PARCC, OR a 430/460 on the SAT (~30thpercentile). The graduation standard doesn’t necessarily translate into college or military or life readiness, but it at least makes a stab at it.

But even these standards made some districts nervous; the advisory working group, which, as the Denver Post notes, is filled with school-district representatives, has proposed lowering the bar.  The working group says a student only needs a D in a single concurrent enrollment class or a 2 on the AP exam to graduate high school college- and career-ready. Since when are D’s and 2’s the kind of expectations we ask our children to live up to? Shouldn’t our graduates be able to enter the military, college or any workplace other than McDonalds? We’re talking about making sure our kids can read, write and do basic math—we’re not talking calculus.

These standards just won’t cut it in today’s economy. Here are the latest international statistics. We rank 19th in reading, 22th in science, and 29th in math literacy out of the OECD countries. As recent guest Joel Klein put it, “at this rate of improvement our kids are going to be dealt out of the 21st century global marketplace.”

The practical facts are that lower standards simply won’t prepare our students for today’s highly competitive global economy. Our graduates will have to shoulder additional burdens, financial or otherwise, because our K-12 system didn’t set the bar high enough for them to be successful after high school. Let’s increase our expectations, not lower them.