The Big Picture of High School Graduation Criteria

In American public high schools, students generally need three things to be considered done with a free public education.

1. Passing scores on exit exams
2. Sufficient course credits
3. Be at least 17 years old

Not all states use the same criteria for exit exams, credit hours, and date for aging out of compulsory education. I’m in NY so I use that as a reference point. Your mileage and experiences may vary. What also varies are the slow, small changes some districts and communities have been taking over time to shift away from these particular criteria, which was all the rage when the United States made the decision to educate all of its younger citizens, not just those who could pay tuition.

Exit Exams
For the majority of students in NY, a passing grade on Regents exams is needed in order to demonstrate they’ve learned what’s expected. This idea of “what’s expected” lies at the heart of the standards conversation – which is too big an issue for this particular post. Currently, students need to pass 4 or 5 exams, depending on which pathway they are on. NYSED is in the process of expanding the pathways to include an arts degree and revamping the Global Studies Exam with has kept many a student from graduating on time.

For a minority of students in NY, mastery of the standards is demonstrated via research papers, portfolios, and projects. The criteria for success on their work is determinded through a consortium that operates with the full consent of NYSED and its members are regular ol’ public education schools. Anne Cook, the director, reports they have fewer students drop out than Regents-giving high schools and their students report being better prepared for college. The consortium is not new. It’s been around since the late 90’s and as public interest in alternatives to high stakes exams grows, media outlets are covering more and more schools across the country that are quietly looking to document this criteria in a non-exam based way.

Course Credits
For the majority of students in public education across the country, they have to earn a sufficient number of course credits to graduate. These Carnegie units [Yes, it got its name exactly how you think it got its name] are strictly time-based. A common joke when discussing the issue of course credits is to point out the part of the learner they measure; students get credits based on how long their butt was in the seat, not necessarily how well or much is learned. Typically, students aren’t given credit for having sat in a particular seat unless they get a grade that reflects they did what the teacher expected while sitting in that seat AKA pass the course. The challenge of how we describe “passing” is at the heart of the anti-grade movement and likewise a separate issue from this post.

For a minority of students in public education, measurement shifts from time to mastery. As it is with all things in education, this approach has many names: Competency-based education (CBE), performance-based, mastery-based, etc. [For what it’s worth, I’m fairly confident that it took a while for Carnegie to shake out as the name for time-based education and then it became the only name. So it goes in education nomenclature. This does a good job trying to define mastery-based learning] This approach is not new nor does it look the same everywhere. It was not invented by Gates, Pearson, or Rocketship. It’s based on the basic philosophy held by any adult who has met more than one child: not all children develop in the same way or at the same pace. What is new is the attention it’s getting – especially when a publisher or vendor relies on teaching machines (H/t Audrey Watters) to make learning personal. It’s important to note – and the purpose for this post – this approach is no more representative of CBE than a pit bull is representative of the subspecies canis. 

Aging out of Compulsory Education
For the majority of students in the world, passage through public education is based on how many times they’ve gone around the sun. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson – they’re organized based on their date of manufacturing. Parents debate enrolling a “old 5” or waiting until they’re a “young 6.” To put it more bluntly, the “staircase” many point to as a problem with the Common Core was built long before Common Core came along. It’s merely a runner on those cement steps.

For a minority of students here in the states, some districts are shifting how they think about the concept of time and age. The Adams 50 School District in Colorado is one that moved away from a traditional concept of grades. Ira Socol writes a great deal about his district’s approach to grouping. For others, the shift away from course credits forced a reconsideration of how students are grouped and graduate. New Hampshire has passed policies that allows local districts to determine if demonstrating competencies allows students to graduate “early.”

States, districts, and schools have choices about how they handle the three components of exiting a free public education. To that end, we can make claims about each of them in turn. Some possible ones might include [and note, I’m not married to any of these, just taking my claim writing skills out for a walk]:

  • Claim: Exit exams are the cheapest, most cost-effective way to ensure students have mastered the expected content.
  • Counterclaim: Portfolio-based and performance-based exit tasks, though more costly, are worth it as they allow us to expand what it measured and how students demonstrate their learning.
  • Claim: Traditional course credits are the most effective way of ensuring students get the full developmentally-appropriate liberal arts experience including group work, discussion, and review of previously learned content.
  • Counterclaim: Competency-based learned shifts the focus from time-based measurement to actual student ability and allows for more varied, personalized engagement with the content.
  • Claim: A society needs to keep children in school until the age of 17 or 18 to develop their social and emotional skills, regardless of how much learning they’re experiencing in school. 
  • Counterclaim: By allowing students to exit out of school once they have mastered the outcome expectations for public education, students are free to pursue their own areas of interest.

Looking forward to hearing your claim.

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