June 9 — 6:20 pm, 2003

Increased graduation requirements helped students – why lower them?

A new set of graduation guidelines adopted by the School Reform Commission (SRC) in March 2003 lowers the School District of Philadelphia’s graduation requirements in core academic areas. But data from the recently released Philadelphia High School Audit, as well as findings from several major studies, argues that we should be implementing higher, not lower, graduation standards.

In June 1998, the School District of Philadelphia did adopt increased graduation and promotion guidelines for high school students. These heightened requirements were mandated for students entering high school in September 1998 and anticipated to graduate in June 2002.

Now the SRC has reduced from four to three the number of years of math and science required to graduate. While the rationale for lowering the graduation requirements is still unclear, a review of District data makes clear that the 1998 increase in requirements positively impacted outcomes for students.

The High School Audit found that with the imposition of the stricter graduation requirements, there was only a slight decline in the four-year high school graduation rate, from 58 percent to 54 percent, with little variation across different racial and ethnic groups. But at the same time there was a significant increase in students completing a sequence of higher-level courses, including a minimum of two years of higher-level math, two years of higher-level science, and two years of the same foreign language.

Districtwide, the percentage of graduates completing at least this minimum college prep sequence increased dramatically from 48 percent in 2001 to 71 percent in 2002. This meant 1,400 more Philadelphia students graduated with the minimum college prep sequence.

Increased graduation guidelines benefited all students, while closing the persistent gaps in opportunity-to-learn for students in the non-magnet schools, Latino and African American students, and students in the highest poverty schools.

“Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra 2 more than doubles the odds that a student who enters postsecondary education will complete a bachelor’s degree, “ reports Clifford Adelman in his book Answers In The Tool Box.

The completion of algebra and geometry by 92 percent of last year’s Philadelphia high-school graduates is an important improvement. However, these courses no longer represent a solid grounding for college-level math and are most likely insufficient for success in college and careers. Instead, K-16 alignment studies point to the need for at least 4 years of college-prep math in high school. Philadelphia appeared to be headed in the right direction until the math requirement was decreased.

The District states that all students will now be required to complete a minimum of three years of higher level math, and that principals can opt to require a fourth year of math. We applaud the three-year requirement. However, local as well as national data show that when taking higher-level math courses is optional, students in the non-magnet schools, particularly African American and Latino students, are simply given less.

Students pay a high price for being underprepared for either school or work. Far too many Philadelphia graduates end up in remedial courses in college for one and even two years – paying for these non-credit bearing courses. Far too many students enroll but are not retained in college. Far too many graduates (as well as those students who leave high school without a diploma) have a difficult time securing gainful employment.

Philadelphia has a long way to go to ensure that all students receive a rigorous, relevant high school education. Serious issues, such as the need to hire and retain high quality teachers – particularly in math, science, and world languages – must be addressed. Curriculum and instruction that supports diverse learners is also critical, along with a long list of other issues.

But Philadelphia took the first step in raising expectations, with some encouraging results coming out of its first graduating class. We should now focus on translating higher standards into practices and policies that will prepare students for the future that has already started.

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