What Does a High School Diploma Really Mean?

On the surface, the consistent rise in high school graduation rates, both in Colorado and across the country, is great news. More kids are persisting through high school and earning their diplomas – which can be critical for both employment and continued education. However, there’s much more to the story, and a closer look reveals some startling trends.

As the New York Times Editorial Board recently argued, while high school graduation rates continue to improve, weak graduation requirements and lackluster school curriculum have led to a devaluation of the high school diploma. As a result, many new graduates are ill-prepared for what lies beyond high school, whether that is a four-year college, a career, or even the Armed Forces. According to the Times, “less than 40 percent of 12th graders [in the U.S.] are ready for math and reading at the college level.”

Colorado isn’t faring better. Less than 50 percent of our high school graduates are prepared for college-level reading, math, and science. What’s more, a full 34 percent of our students graduate from high school in need of remediation in college. While most would agree that a high school diploma is a minimum requirement in today’s workforce, as many employers have experienced, it does not necessarily signal readiness for our 21st century jobs.

A high school diploma should mean more than a certificate in good attendance. Colorado students should graduate knowing they’ve obtained critical skills and that they are ready for their next step. Attempts to weaken graduation requirements for the sake of higher graduation rates are not only a disservice to students, but to our entire state, which relies on a prepared workforce to keep our economy thriving.

Despite the evidence that we need stronger high school graduation requirements, the Colorado State Board of Education approved last fall a new menu of options for school districts that essentially waters down the expectations placed on students graduating from high school. This move revised the earlier, more rigorous graduation guidelines adopted in 2013, which Colorado Succeeds and our members fought for.

The Importance of High Expectations

As the Times editorial points out, Colorado and other states’ move to dilute graduation guidelines effectively misleads families and students about the true value of their diploma. At a time when our economy is demanding more from our students, the last thing we should do is lower our expectations of them. Indeed, it is amazing how much our students can achieve when we raise the bar and support them in meeting those higher requirements.

Thankfully, many Colorado educators agree. At North High School in Denver, for instance, Principal Nicole Veltze encourages students to take more rigorous courses than Denver Public Schools currently requires. “Over the last few years, we’ve increased our expectations for students above and beyond the DPS requirements,” Principal Veltze told Chalkbeat Colorado. “We expect our students to graduate without needing remediation.”

Durango Superintendent Dan Snowberger agrees. In response to the State Board lowering graduation guidelines, he told the Durango Herald that the local school board plans to reach higher. The district aims to graduate seniors “remediation-free,” whether they go on to college, vocational training, or enter the workforce.

Just like these educators and so many others across our state, Colorado Succeeds is committed to raising the bar and ensuring a high school diploma truly signals our students are ready for what comes after high school. Our work is far from finished, and it will take all of us, working together, to make sure Colorado’s graduation guidelines help set our students up for future success.

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Colorado Succeeds