Personalized Diplomas Would Keep Education From Becoming An Effort Grade

In light of graduation scandals and state policy changes happening across the country, there’s a burning question right now among education circles: What does a high school diploma even mean anymore?

Ideally, a high school diploma should suggest to universities, technical and community colleges, or employers that the graduate has been successfully prepared to transition to the next stage of their life. Unfortunately, we know this isn’t happening.

A recent study by Hechinger Report found that more than half of incoming college freshman were in need of remedial courses upon arrival. Similarly, employers are finding that the skills students are acquiring in high school are often misaligned with 21st Century workforce expectations, leaving graduates who go straight to work after high school stuck in the middle of a skills gap. Whether a graduate is truly “college and career-ready” or not is hard to determine: they all hold the same piece of paper. Consequently, the only common denominator among high school graduates is the fact that they completed high school at all.

At what point, then, does a standard high school diploma maintain any meaning at all? Unless we customize the diplomas that students receive, we risk high school becoming a participation trophy.

Higher Accountability Through Personalized Diplomas

Just look right here in Kentucky, where the graduation rate is nearly 90%, but only 65.6% of high school seniors in 2017 were identified as “college and career ready.” This is the sad reality behind Kentucky’s high graduation rate: We’re handing out diplomas to seniors who can barely read or do math. That’s not what “accountable” looks like.

Raising the bar for Kentucky’s graduation requirements will almost certainly lower the graduation rate, but I argue that’s better than lowering our expectations. If we truly want all students to be college and career-ready, we’ll have to personalize the education they’re receiving. So how do we build the infrastructure to make that happen?

First, the groundwork has to be laid by making high school relevant for students.

Students obviously need core classes like mathematics, English, and science, but allowing students to explore career options within their coursework could also keep them on track for legitimate career or college readiness. And of course, we’ll need to maintain high expectations from teachers, and especially those who work in diverse settings.

Next, we have to ensure that “college and career-readiness” mean what they appear.

If Kentucky recognizes a student as “college-ready,” that should have merit. A college-preparatory pathway should actually prepare students for the quality of work that will be expected of them at the college or university level, and that means without remediation. Adding dual-credit, AP, and IB courses certainly wouldn’t hurt, allowing students to obtain college credits while they’re still in high school.

Likewise, career-ready graduates should come out of high school with the skills they need to be successful in the workforce or in technical school. That will involve things like internships and work experiences in high school, which would upskill students’ learning and better prepare them for workforce expectations of the 21st Century.

Finally, differentiate the high school diplomas that students receive.

Let’s create career-ready and college-ready diplomas to illustrate exactly what kinds of skills and knowledge students acquired during their time in high school. If students participate in a cooperative or work-based learning experience, stamp that on the diploma. If students demonstrate high proficiency on standardized or aptitude tests, add those credentials on as well.

In other words, tailor students’ coursework to their interests and career pursuits, and the diplomas will speak for themselves.

But what if a student in good academic standing still falls short of career or college-readiness? Let them graduate, I say — but give them a basic, general high school diploma.

Some may argue that this lowers the bar for graduates, but considering where we are right now, at least differentiating diplomas would give us a “bar” at all. Differentiating diplomas won’t solve all of our system’s problems, but it would raise accountability for both students and schools and that’s a step in the right direction.

After all, we’re seeing the impact of low standards right now in places like Washington, D.C. and Maryland, where districts have come under fire for essentially giving students an “effort grade” for basically just being enrolled.

Kentucky’s situation may not be as perilous, but the consequences of celebrating false progress are all the same: It’s the students that suffer.


Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk, CC-Licensed.

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