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Few States Require College- and Career-Ready Courses for Graduation, Study Says

This post originally appeared on the High School & Beyond blog.

High school graduation rates in the United States have hit historic highs, with the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Education showing that more than 80 percent of students from the class of 2013 graduated on-time. 

But a new analysis finds that the level of coursework needed to earn a high school diploma differs from state to state.

And just four states—Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee—and the District of Columbia require students to complete college- and career-ready level courses in math and English/language arts to graduate, according to the report released today by the nonprofit Achieve.

The group, which played a key role in launching the Common Core State Standards initiative, looked at 93 diploma options from across the states and D.C. for the class of 2014. All states have adopted college-and-career-ready standards, the report notes. (Forty-four states and D.C. are using the common-core standards, while all others are using state-adopted benchmarks—though many of those look similar to the common core.)

Twenty states do not offer a diploma that requires students to complete college-and-career-ready level courses. In those states, "the bar as a whole is set for all kids at a level below college and career ready," Alissa Peltzman, the vice president for state policy and implementation support for Achieve, said in an interview. "Students and parents rely on that diploma as a signal of readiness, but it doesn't mean they're prepared for that next step." 

The analysis considers graduation requirements "college- and career-ready level" if students have to take a course of study aligned to the college- and career-ready standards, including at least three years of math, generally through Algebra II, and four of "rigorous, grade-level" English.

Equity Issue?

In 26 states, students can choose from multiple diploma options, including a college- and career-ready level option, according to the analysis. In many cases, students have to opt in to the college- and career-ready track. 

"I think there's a tremendous equity issue there," said Peltzman. "You're placing the burden on students to identify the courses they need to be successful and to be prepared." First-generation college-going students and those from low-income families may have a tougher time navigating that system than their peers, she said. 

Of the 26 states with multiple diplomas, just nine publicly report the percentage of students who graduated with the college-and-career-ready coursework.

"We need to make sure the high school diploma means something so it's not a false promise," said Peltzman. 

For a full list of states and their diploma requirements, go to the report, "How the States Got Their Rates."

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