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The Relevant High School Diploma

By Guest Blogger: Elaine Menardi

Are Students Ready for the Future?

Rising graduation rates imply that high school educational achievement is the highest it has ever been in the United States. Educators at all levels have collectively concentrated their efforts to ensure as many graduates as possible earn the coveted credential that sets them on the path to future life success. However, other key indicators raise serious questions about whether those diplomas represent anything more than certificates of mandatory attendance.

After a lost decade of academic progress as reported by recent NAEP scores, the high school diploma remains little more than a promissory note, instead of an actual verification of its owner’s professional and intellectual capabilities. What makes a high school diploma relevant in the modern work world? Moreover, how can we redeem its value? Several recent projects at the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) have produced unintended consequences focused on this critical concern.

Diploma Endorsements

The Cap4K Initiative, SB08-212 (C.R.S. 22-7-1009 and 22-7-1017), legislated the Postsecondary Workforce Readiness (PWR) diploma endorsement, which offers students an incentive and a stamp of college and career readiness. In 2013, the State Board of Education (SBE) and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) jointly adopted the first PWR Endorsed Diploma criteria, a hefty tome of academic benchmarks and performance indicators designating when a student had achieved high enough to be deemed ready for life after high school graduation.

With the impending adoption of the state Graduation Guidelines coming in 2015, implementation of the PWR endorsement was suspended until after the menu of options was approved by the SBE. The discussion reignited when the legislature passed SB17-272, challenging the state to develop predictive indicators for success in attaining credentials in career, the military, and in college. That year, the legislature also approved HB17-1201 for the STEM High School Diploma Endorsement and SB17-123 for the Seal of Biliteracy. All at once, several new possibilities for the high school diploma credential emerged to add credibility in academic excellence for Colorado’s students.

The passage of SB17-272 called for review and renewal of the original criteria for the PWR endorsement. Starting in February 2018, the Office of Postsecondary Readiness at CDE convened monthly workgroup meetings to gather input for a new recommendation to the State Board. These guiding questions framed the work of nearly 40 education experts around the state:

  • What is the compelling reason to offer the PWR endorsement and what is the value added for students, college admissions and employers?
  • What is the target audience that will recognize the benefits of this endorsement and what level of confidence in a student will it provide to them?
  • What are the indicators that predict success and credential completion for students after graduation?

Public education was born of a need to prepare people for work. A high school education should ensure students are capable and competent for their chosen pathway of whatever comes next in their future, whether it is college, postsecondary training, military life or workforce careers. This used to be true. The award of a diploma was indeed a major milestone in a time when not everyone had equitable access to the benefits of public education. Though schools have taken worthy strides in moving students across the K-12 finish line, employer confidence in the credential remains low.

“I wouldn’t assume that more high school diplomas awarded equals a more career-ready workforce,” says Jason Tyszko, the executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Education and Workforce. “You can up your completion rates for high school, but not increase the number of students who are proficient in reading and math and ready to go on to the workforce.”

The value and relevancy of the traditional high school diploma are at stake. We stand at the crossroads between increasing numbers of graduates and the decaying talent pipelines that lead to well-paying jobs in Colorado. As one of the fastest growing economies with the lowest unemployment rate in the second most highly educated state in the country, Colorado graduates need diplomas with teeth. Otherwise, the Colorado Paradox perpetuates and student achievement gaps persist.

How do we measure postsecondary workforce readiness?

The PWR task group wrestled with the tough questions as much this time around as they did six years ago when drafting the original criteria.

  • What constitutes a college- and career-ready graduate?
  • How has that skillset changed in a rapidly evolving technological world?
  • What considerations must be included to anticipate an entirely new future of work?

All types of assessments and measurements were on the table: ACT and SAT scores; Grade Point Average (GPA); concurrent enrollment classes; AP and IB test scores; work-based learning; Capstone projects; community service; ASVAB and Accuplacer test scores; apprenticeships and internships; ACT Work Keys; and industry certifications. Similar to the Graduation Guidelines, developing the PWR endorsed diploma criteria started with a menu of options designating thresholds in multiple categories to describe a future-ready graduate. The task group’s final recommendation is currently under review and awaiting approval by the SBE.

Not long ago, the main message coming from schools to students was: Go to college! For all practical purposes, that meant a four-year institution of higher education. Educators measured their own success by comparing matriculation numbers, rarely following up to find out if students actually completed college degrees. Now, the pendulum has swung the opposite direction as employers cry out for skilled laborers: You don’t need college! Go to trade school!

The most confusing messaging is in our own language, in the phrase “Postsecondary Workforce Readiness”. The dichotomy is stark: choose college or career. As adults, we all know this is a disfavor for our students. Life is rarely as narrow to be one path or another. We need to prepare our young people for the future of work whatever direction they take. We must create future-ready students.

Regaining Relevancy

Endorsed diplomas are a good first step toward revitalizing the high school academic experience and regaining the relevancy of the diploma. Highlighting student achievement with marks of distinction will inspire students to persevere and invest further in their own education, more intentionally planning a path for life after high school. Colorado offers the STEM endorsement, the Seal of Biliteracy, and soon, the PWR endorsement. The next step is working with college admissions officers and employers to help them understand and appreciate the significance of these credentials.

High school GPA is the most powerful predictor of postsecondary retention and degree completion because it demonstrates long-term perseverance and commitment to learning. Concurrent enrollment is also a strong predictor of academic success in any type of post-high school education and to a lesser degree, ACT or SAT scores. Simple recognition of these accomplishments creates relevancy.

Capstone projects are perhaps the greatest opportunity to strengthen the high school diploma. As a culminating exhibition of the academic experience, Capstones are practical applications of learning that create solutions to problems. Research-based or investigative projects give students freedom to explore, experiment and discover areas of deeper interest that lead to potential careers. At the very least, Capstone projects require a student to think critically about what they have learned and experienced throughout their school years. Capstones that are done well become portfolios and interview tools to showcase a student’s abilities to employers and college admissions officers.

A high school diploma represents the satisfactory completion of K-12 education, typically a required series of courses in reading, math, science and social studies, with a variety of elective subjects to add depth and complexity to produce well-rounded citizens. The diploma is so important that most jobs in the U.S. require at least this credential as a basic prerequisite for employment. Yet, there is significant variation in the level of achievement the diploma represents school-to-school, and even state-to-state. To give Colorado students the best chance at future success, we must take proactive steps to ensure the diplomas we award are relevant and substantial, backed by a rigorous academic and professional learning that creates future-ready students.


Elaine Menardi is the Chief Innovator at Colorado AeroLab. Find more from her on LinkedIn and Twitter.