One Diploma for All: What Does It Mean to Earn a High School Diploma in America?

High school graduation rates are on the rise, but a growing swell of voices is asking what these increasing rates really mean. The more I read, the more I question whether the high school diploma itself means what we think it does, or whether we Americans even agree on the meaning of earning a diploma.

Given that a high school diploma is required for outcomes ranging from entry-level warehouse work to admissions into selective 4-year universities, it makes sense to wonder how a single qualification can be expected to represent readiness for every young person aspiring to every post-secondary goal.  Can a document that we soon expect our school systems to issue to 90% of all young people really offer us any assurances about the qualifications of its holder?

NPR has featured several recent segments about school systems gaming the measurement systems used to calculate graduation rates. These sorts of problems are endemic wherever you find high stakes targets imposed from above. While we certainly need more transparency in government data collection, these examples of fudging the numbers also make me question why school systems feel they must resort to dishonesty to meet government targets. Do certain systems find it impossible to meet graduation targets honestly, do they lack the resources to do so, or is it related to our lack of clarity over the meaning of the diploma itself?

The NPR reports have also questioned the use of credit recovery programs to help struggling students meet minimum graduation requirements, positing them as corner cutting efforts that water down the requirements. But again, student needs vary and the stakes here are high. The outcomes for young people aging out of our schools without diplomas, which include increased unemployment and incarceration rates, are as damaging to our communities as they are to the students themselves. Pair those high stakes with blanket graduation targets set by those with no understanding of the complexities faced by public schools and you will find people looking for practical alternatives.

We can find those established alternatives in almost any international model. The US is one of the only countries that issues a single, broadly defined diploma. In most nations, (see, for example, Singapore and Finland here or here) students earn specific qualifications that they can use for entry into work or post-secondary training. At some point during lower secondary education, students around the world complete coursework and take exams that they use to apply to specific upper-secondary programs based on the qualifications they have earned, those they seek to earn, and their overall career interests. If they don’t get into the programs they want, or they change their minds later on, most can follow paths to remediate for another chance at entry into their path of choice. When their training is complete, they and their potential employers know exactly what types of work they are qualified to do.

But leaders in the US persist in the assertion that “college and career readiness” can be encapsulated in a single diploma, that all young people need to be given the same skill set until they specialize at the college level, and that it’s simply the fault of failed schools and low expectations when young people aren’t fully prepared for every future they might imagine.

In our efforts to create schools that prepare everyone for everything, we fail to truly excel at preparing anyone for anything. College students regularly complain that, despite making good grades and taking challenging coursework in high school, they find themselves unprepared for the demands of selective universities. Reformers have used these complaints to argue the need for annual standardized testing, but so far the tests are failing to provide the check points students need along the way. They are so broadly constructed in an attempt to meet the needs of all students and all outcomes that the tests fail to to communicate specific information to students about whether they are on track to meet their specific post-secondary goals.

While we fall short of preparing young people for universities, we don’t seem to be doing any better preparing them for the workforce. Young employees also report that their high school courses don’t prepare them for the demands of the workplace, but the increases in general academic requirements put in place to provide better preparation have led to less time in student schedules for work-based learning or extended experiences in specialized career and technical education (CTE) coursework. We have allowed ourselves to be won over by slogans and propaganda promising high levels of learning for all, but offering no specific pathways proven to help young people excel.

Influential education organizations make recommendations like, “Encourage all students to take the most advanced classes” (one of the recommendations from Achieve in the report “Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?”) This kind of glittering generality sounds wonderful, but all students? most advanced? The number of students taking advanced academic coursework, like Algebra II, has been increasing, but 12th grade mathematics scores show no significant growth. Anyone who has ever taught in a nonselective high school knows that all students are simply not ready for all coursework at the same age and time.

And given the broad range of careers and life goals that our students pursue, is it necessary for all students to excel at the same subjects? I have two children of my own pursuing degrees in the humanities at private, selective 4-year universities who are not required to take math courses that require Algebra II level mathematics preparation. Their schools recognize that they will not use this type of math in their work and that their time is better spent in other areas, so why can’t we recognize that our high school time is also limited and some students need to put more emphasis on coursework other than Algebra II or other advanced academic courses?

We need students who are both motivated and equipped to fill the broad range of jobs that are needed to make our society work. We need diplomas that communicate specific student strengths and qualifications for work or further training. Doesn’t it seem time to question the policy of one diploma for all?


American Psychological Association. (2012). Facing the school dropout dilemma. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Kena, G., Musu-Gillette, L., Robinson, J., Wang, X., Rathbun, A., Zhang, J., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Barmer, A., and Dunlop Velez, E. (2015). The Condition of Education 2015 (NCES 2015-144). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC. Retrieved 29 June 2015 from

Peter D. Hart Research Associates., & Achieve Group Inc. (2005). Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work?: A study of recent high school graduates, college instructors, and employers. Washington, D.C: Peter D. Hart.


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