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The Diploma Dilemma: Setting Students Up For Success

The Diploma Dilemma

by Macke Raymond

Every spring, in front of admiring and proud families, thousands of teenagers don caps and gowns and parade across countless stages to receive their high school diplomas. The high school diploma—the most common academic credential in the United States—is the first major milestone for students. High school graduation is a key status differentiator compared to those who do not attain it. It is the ticket to a notable bump in lifetime wages. It serves as common currency for many entry-level job requirements and is required for many colleges.

Reality, however, belies this rosy description. Despite flat or declining results at fourth or eighth grade on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the rate of students attaining a high school diploma has increased in the United States, rising 6 percentage points between 2011 and 2017. The trend contradicts the flat historical trend of twelfth-grade NAEP results for seventeen-year-olds, suspended in 2013, that showed flat performance over the previous decade. One of two explanations is possible. Either there is a remarkable renaissance happening in high schools or the graduation rates are inflated through changes in requirements, definitions of performance standards, or assessment criteria.

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