New Report Shows Wide Variation, Lack of Alignment to College and Workforce Expectations in High School Diplomas

Monday, October 19, 2015Printer-friendly version

Washington, D.C. — October 19, 2015 — Achieve today released “How the States Got Their Rates,” a report compiling high school diploma options available to the class of 2014 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia alongside their graduation rates. The analysis looked at how many diplomas a state offered, whether the diplomas required students to complete college- and career-ready (CCR) course requirements in English Language Arts (ELA)/literacy and mathematics, assessment requirements for earning the diplomas, and if student subgroup outcomes were reported by diploma type.

Achieve’s analysis reveals that while many states have multiple diploma options for students, they are largely not publicly reporting how many students earn each type of diploma, or modify or substitute required courses. Most states report how many students are graduating, but not if all graduates are academically ready for college or career.

“The high school diploma landscape across the states has become incredibly complex,” said Michael Cohen, President of Achieve. “When states offer options for students to reach high school graduation, we owe it to those students to ensure that whichever option they choose will leave them prepared for success in the future. Unfortunately, the lack of transparent reporting on student outcomes means that we have more questions than answers.”

The report details the 93 options that states offer for students to receive a high school diploma. In addition, many districts have their own graduation requirements above their state’s requirements. A few states have no requirements at all, relying on districts to set their own.

“The overall increase in graduation rates across the country is certainly a positive development — at the end of the day, earning a diploma is better than not earning a diploma for most students — but in too many states, students are still handed a diploma without having taken courses aligned with the state’s CCR standards,” said Cohen. “For many kids, these diplomas are tickets to nowhere that provide false assurances of academic readiness for success in college and career.”

Key findings from Achieve’s analysis include:           

  • In many states, students have multiple options to graduate, many of which fall short of CCR expectations in ELA/literacy and mathematics.
  • Because of these options that fall short of CCR expectations, a state’s graduation rate may not match how many students graduate ready for college and careers.
  • In most states, despite offering many pathways to graduation – which vary in rigor – states do not report which students complete which requirements.
  • When students walk across the graduation stage and are handed a high school diploma, they (and their parents) believe they earned a passport to further learning. Yet in too many states, for too many students, the diploma is not as valuable as it needs to be.
  • Only nine states who offer multiple diplomas currently publicly report the percentage of students earning the CCR-level diploma: California, Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia.

There are a number of uncomplicated steps that states can take to increase transparency around diplomas and student outcomes to inform decision-making by students, families, educators, and policymakers. These include:

  • Publishing clear information for students and parents about various diploma options, their requirements, and how these options align with the requirements for college and careers;
  • Publishing accessible and clear information about the percentage of students completing each diploma or pathway option, and disaggregating this data by student subgroup;
  • Monitoring how many and which students are opting out of a college- and career-ready course of study or modifying (i.e., lessening) their course of study to know whether this policy provides an appropriate but infrequently used safety valve or a gaping loophole.

The full report can be found at

For a complete list of states’ most recent high school diploma options, including mathematics and ELA/literacy course requirements, please go here.


MEDIA CONTACT: Chad Colby, (202) 419-1570,

Kelly Van Beveren, (202) 745-2306,