Rolling back high school graduation standards is a bad idea

Bush logoby William McKenzie

TEXAS_TESTING_POLICY_2_30565843+(1)Here they go again.

As they did in 2013, Texas legislators are working to reduce the requirements for a high school diploma. Senators already have voted to let students graduate even if they haven’t demonstrated the skills for college or the workplace.

Students who’ve failed up to two of Texas’ five high school exit exams — in courses like English and math — still could graduate if a committee agrees. The panel would consist of the principal, relevant teacher, school counselor and/or parent, parent-designee or student.

Committees now determine whether students who fail state tests in fifth or eighth grade can move to the next level. The vast majority of those students go ahead, so struggling high school students are likely to get a diploma, too.

This is a bad idea.

Here’s why:

Students stand to lose the most.

Look at our world. Professional, managerial and technical jobs that require critical thinking have increased over the last three decades. Jobs that require routine manual or cognitive skills — clerical, repair and sales work, e.g — have declined. The only other jobs to increase noticeably are low-skills jobs like food service and personal care that come with less pay and less economic mobility.

UTAustin_logoHow is it fair to kids if we hand them a diploma without any objective assessment of their readiness for jobs that will lead to more mobility, many of which require some college?

It’s wrong to think we should just give a diploma to students failing state exams because they’ll drop out and struggle to get work.

Instead of talking about making graduation easier, why not provide students intensive interventions so they can master English, math or other subjects?

Perhaps nothing can help the 28,000 students who could qualify this year for an altered path to a diploma. But long-term, Austin should be investing in interventions, especially for students struggling with English. Schools know which students are at risk. Focus on intervening with them instead of lowering their expectations. And start long before high school.

Colleges and employers need an objective way of knowing whether high schoolers are ready for the next level.

Arbitrary graduation standards make that hard. As SMU political science professor Matthew Wilson puts it: “A diploma is supposed to be a signal to universities and employers alike, but it is meaningless if we keep providing path after path to circumvent mastering a subject.”

It’s wrong to devalue diplomas just because we already have a remediation problem.

It’s true that colleges and employers already must play catch-up with too many high school graduates. But why lower graduation standards? If a student can’t pass a state exam, there is always the GED route. GEDs limit what you can do, but we would limit high school students by giving them a diploma without the skills.

The content matters.

People may question standardized tests, but Texas’ final English exam assesses whether students can read, write and communicate clearly. The State Board of Education, teachers, colleges and employers deem these skills important. Read the test questions yourself at

Don’t concepts matter, such as how to use a comma or figure the sales tax while shopping?

Finally, this path to a diploma is unfair to the 90 percent of seniors who have passed all their exit exams.

They’ve fulfilled their responsibility, even if passing some exams requires answering only about half the questions correctly.

Sure, students with special needs might need more time to take tests. Others might require substantial resources to help with challenges such as dyslexia. And those with the most serious cognitive disabilities rightly don’t have to pass the state tests.

But how is it fair to students to give them a diploma when they can’t show the ability to think critically, write effectively and solve problems? The real world will demand those abilities, and there might not be an escape hatch once they enter it.

A high school diploma is a ticket to the next stage of life. It won’t help them if that ticket lacks meaning.

William McKenzie is editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute. His email address is

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