We Need Branched, Not Tiered, Diploma Pathways


Some of the education reformers responsible for pushing measures like annual standardized testing, accountability tied to Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the American Diploma Project are beginning to backpedal on their promise that “all students can achieve at high levels” in light of the mounting evidence that, although students are now taking higher level coursework, completing courses with more rigorous standards, and graduating from high school at higher rates than ever before, high school achievement and college and career readiness have not improved.

In one recent example, Education Next, the voice of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published an online forum called “Rethinking the High School Diploma” advocating a tiered diploma system that would issue a top tier diploma to students who pass CCSS aligned standardized tests, and the same tired old American diploma we have been issuing for decades for all those who don’t pass the tests.

From the Education Next forum:

“The one with the gold star will signal college readiness, Common Core style. The other one will signal much the same as today’s conventional diploma, mainly that one has passed a set of mandatory courses to the satisfaction of those teaching them.”-from “Different Kids Need Different Credentials”by Chester E. Finn, Jr. (President of Thomas B. Fordham Foundation)

With this solution, it sounds like they aren’t really interested in improving outcomes for anyone, are they? They just want to hand a “gold star” to those who demonstrate readiness to pursue a 4-year university path. With AP coursework, dual enrollment credits, class rank, GPAs, and ACT/SAT scores, those kids get plenty of gold stars already. Selective 4-year universities aren’t asking for more measures to evaluate their applicants.

The young people with unmet needs are those who aren’t earning the credits and scores to get into 4-year universities and are leaving high school with a generic diploma that doesn’t award any specific qualifications to help them transition into quality post-secondary settings. The needs of employers and post-secondary training settings also go unmet by a single diploma that doesn’t provide any meaningful information about student abilities. We don’t need more gold stars. What we need are:

  • quality pathways into viable careers,
  • inclusive education leading to challenging and meaningful outcomes for every student, and
  • diplomas that specify what students are qualified to do after school completion.

Chester Finn likens his “gold star” tiered diploma vision to international models:

“…it’s somewhat similar to the practice in today’s England, where you can complete your schooling with a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), but if you’re bent on university, you stick around to earn a more-demanding A-level certificate.” from “Different Kids Need Different Credentials”by Chester E. Finn, Jr. (President of Thomas B. Fordham Foundation)

I spent the 2013-2014 school year in England researching post-GCSE diploma pathways in England on a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, so I know Finn’s statement is misleading on an important point about English education: After GCSEs (taken when students are finishing the equivalent of US 10th grade), young people in England don’t just leave education and training if they don’t pursue A-levels. The British system offers a broad choice of education and training options for upper secondary students, including a robust and well supported apprenticeship system, many types of vocational and technical schools that award industry-recognized qualifications, and supported programs for young people who need to improve their basic academic skills. There are also applied learning pathways for those who do well on their GCSEs that can be at least as demanding as A-level coursework and can even lead to university degrees, like high level apprenticeships and technical colleges.

Sure, there are plenty of elitists in England, especially within Parliament, who spout this same rhetoric about A-levels being the “gold star” option and all other options being for the losers who can’t get top scores on their GCSEs. But almost all of the educators, trainers, students, and employers I spoke with recognized the value of British vocational and technical education. Most said they wished their vocational education system could be even more robust, like those in other parts of Europe, say Switzerland, for example.

So instead of a tiered diploma, where 4-year university qualifications are seen as superior to those lesser pathways, I suggest branched diploma pathways leading to the wide range of post-secondary outcomes our country needs for strong social and economic growth. I have written before that a bachelor’s degree or above isn’t necessary for the success of every individual, and that universal attainment of bachelor’s degrees is unlikely to be beneficial for our society as a whole.

However, unlike the reformers who’ve decided to give up on students who struggle to pass CCSS aligned tests, I still believe that all students can achieve at high levels. The difference is that my definition of “high levels” isn’t limited to scores on standardized tests, or to the attainment of university degrees. Achievement at high levels happens when young people are able to pursue their life goals and contribute to their communities in the myriad ways we need to create a sustainable, innovative, and inclusive society. That’s only going to happen when we value and support branched pathways to diversified outcomes.

Postscript: For an example of branched pathways, here is a graphic of those offered by the Ministry of Education in Singapore:

Singapore Education Journey


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.Read More »