Limitations Lurk in High School Graduation Pathways

While many high schoolers have myriad routes to graduation, those pathways are not all equal, and some may steer students into unexpected outcomes that limit their options early in life.

As a research project from the Alliance for Excellent Education found, currently, 29 states offer varied pathways to high school graduation. Some participate in experiential learning opportunities such as apprenticeships and work-based or service learning; others take multiple end-of-course tests or show their knowledge and competency with performance-based assessments; some earn advanced degrees in specific areas of interest or take advanced coursework in multiple content areas; and many earn a standard high school diploma that fits a minimum set of credit requirements in core and elective subjects.

As a result of that level of variety, a new report from the Alliance has suggested, many states have ended up creating a "bifurcated system of diploma requirements, forcing students into decisions that may limit their choices for life after high school." Oftentimes, students don't even realize the decisions they're making in high school will have "such a long-lasting impact."

A report on the findings pointed out that without putting "more robust measures of rigor and quality" in place for graduation, "rather than opening doors to opportunity beyond high school, some pathways may close the door to postsecondary options."

The Alliance found that in 12 of the 29 states where multiple graduation pathways were available, students don't have to choose a pathway. In the other 17 states all students must choose a pathway — either selecting from multiple types of diplomas or endorsements or picking a graduation assessment. In four of those 17 states, the only option students get is in how they'll demonstrate competency in core subject areas. In six of the 29 states, graduation pathways don't have assessment requirements.

The Alliance offered several recommendations, among them, that state high school graduation requirements and all graduation pathways should align with college- and career-ready expectations, such as by establishing a default set of graduation requirements that align with college and career-readiness.

Another recommendation was that states adopting multiple pathways work with institutions of higher education and employers to make sure they "value those options."

A separate analysis by the Alliance examined how states measure the effectiveness of career training programs in high schools. The big takeaway was that while states have increased options for career readiness in high school, many don't really confirm that the pathways are successful in preparing students for jobs.

"These analyses show us that many states are working to make high school more relevant by offering pathways reflecting the range of options available to students after graduation," said Deborah Delisle, president and CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, in a statement. "However, simply giving choices to students isn't enough — students need guidance to pick a pathway that aligns with their postsecondary goals. Further, states must ensure all of their high school pathways are clearly defined, rigorous and accessible to students from all backgrounds, no matter if students plan to start a career, join the military or attend college."

The two reports, "Ready for What? How Multiple Graduation Pathways Do — and Do Not — Signal Readiness for College and Careers" and "Preparing High School Students for Careers: State Policies to Promote and Measure Career Readiness," are openly available through the Alliance for Education website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.