Ready for What? How Multiple Graduation Pathways Do-and Do Not-signal Readiness for College and Careers

By Anne Hyslop and Jennifer Sattem – Published Feb. 23, 2021 by the Alliance for Excellent EducationSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) “is a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those underperforming and those historically underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.” In this ALL4Ed report, co-authors Jennifer Sattem and Anne Hyslop provide “state policymakers and advocates with an analysis of the various graduation pathways currently in effect. It also offers recommendations to help lawmakers and others focus graduation pathway policies on equity and excellence.”

The analysis found that 29 states offer a wide variety of educational pathways to earn a high school diploma, which in turn creates an overall bifurcated system of diploma-requirements and assessments that often confuse students and parents and bring about unwise high school enrollment choices. “For example, students in thirteen states choose between a college-preparatory pathway and a career pathway—a choice that may limit the postsecondary options available to them.” In particular, students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities may be put into a position in which the path toward certain postsecondary choices becomes closed. 

Questions and Findings
All4Ed looked at state websites and state legislation and administrative code to answer four questions, listed below with a brief synopsis of what they found:

  1. Do states offer multiple pathways or is only one pathway to graduation available?
    Twenty-nine states offer graduation pathway options that are made clear to their students when they proactively select a pathway or assessment from a menu, while other states have teachers, counselors, families, or students seek different, more rigorous, specialized, or additional pathways.  In the other 21 states and in D.C., additional diplomas are not offered, and students do not have a choice for demonstrating competencies in subject areas. “Students might select advanced courses or a certain course of study to fulfill credit requirements, but the diploma does not distinguish academic achievement or course pathways.”
  2. Do states with multiple graduation pathways offer students choices about course requirements, assessment requirements, or both?
    Twenty-five of the 29 states with multiple graduation pathways offer students a variety of options. In Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Oregon, students can only choose how to demonstrate their competencies in core subjects. States change graduation requirements to increase the number of graduates who are prepared for higher education and the workforce, while also offering flexibility in their credit-toward-graduation choices.  “Research by All4Ed and Achieve into how states design college- and career-ready diplomas suggests that when states enroll students automatically in pathways with higher course expectations—instead of forcing students to opt in to such pathways—greater numbers of students participate in the more rigorous pathways.”
  3. In states with multiple graduation pathways based on differentiated course requirements
    1. are students required to select a graduation pathway?
      Twenty-five states split evenly between policies requiring students to choose a specific pathway and policies that include options to choose pathways they can add on to their diploma. Thirteen states have “all students choose a pathway, endorsement, or diploma that affects their high school courses.” In three states, they must choose from a specific set of courses and/or assessments. In ten states, they may choose from various diploma types.  Twelve states “offer multiple pathways, but do not require students to choose among them.” They start with a standard, default-sequenced diploma and over time students can add and design additional pathways that augment their studies.    
    2. do students have pathway choices leading to both college and career readiness?
      Thirteen states have pathways distinctly designed for college preparation versus a career. Some of these states also have pathways that are both college prep and career oriented. Other states have career prep pathways “designed with more specific destinations in mind . . .  Students completing certain graduation pathways-even those touted as college preparatory – may not meet the requirements for admission to a four-year university.”  Six states offer pathways “intended to signal career readiness or CTE concentration, but do not offer similar choices for college readiness.” Five states “offer a graduation pathway intended to recognize college readiness, but do not offer a CTE or career-readiness option.”  
    3. do pathways signal students are prepared for specific college or career choices?
      The majority of the 25 states give students personalized options consistent with their academic or vocational interests. Ten states have pathways with a STEM concentration. Four states “recognize student participation or interest in specified industries or career fields.” Three states have pathways for students interested in taking on a military career. States used to rely on exit exams that required a passing score to graduate, but in recent years they have turned away from exit exams. “Graduation pathways that include a required assessment or demonstration of competency often rose in their place.”   
  4. In states that offer graduation pathways based on options for how students demonstrate competency in core subject areas
    1. are all students required to demonstrate competency to graduate and, if so, what assessments or measures does the state accept toward diploma requirements?
      “Six states with graduation pathways do not incorporate any requirements for students to demonstrate competency to receive a diploma.” In 15 states, all class of 2021 students “must demonstrate core competency in core subject areas to graduate.” Nine states require students to demonstrate competency through an exit exam or via a minimum score on a standardized test. Five states give students a menu of options to demonstrate competencies. “Rhode Island eschews standardized tests altogether and instead considers performance-based, locally designed assessments to measure competency for graduation.”  
    2. are students in certain pathways required to demonstrate competency to complete the pathway and, if so, what assessments or measures does the state accept?
      “Sixteen states have at least one graduation pathway that requires a pathway-specific demonstration of competency to earn the diploma, endorsement, or distinction.” Nine states have students in both college- and career-ready pathways demonstrate competency and they offer options for how students can do it. Five states have only career-ready pathways that require pathway-specific demonstrations of competency. Two states have college-ready pathways that require demonstrations of competency, but not for career-ready pathways. “Eight states with pathway-specific assessment requirements also require all students to demonstrate competency to graduate from high school.” 

Policy Concerns
“Systems that prioritize choice and flexibility also force students to face a complex landscape of diplomas, endorsements, course requirements, and assessments that may not achieve their intended outcome -preparing students for postsecondary education or workforce training.” As states face issues related to the design of their graduation pathways, they must also ensure that all students have appropriate access to programs that adequately prepare them for college and/or careers. In that spirit, All4Ed listed four key issues that must be addressed:

  1. “State high school graduation requirements and all graduation pathways should align with college- and career-ready expectations.”
  2. “When adopting multiple pathways and diploma options, states should ensure that institutions of higher education and employers value those options.”
  3. “States should require all districts and schools to offer every diploma option and endorsement to all students, including advanced coursework that prepares students for college.”
  4. “States with multiple graduation or diploma choices should regularly evaluate the rigor of available pathways to ensure that all options lead to successful postsecondary outcomes and to ensure that students have equitable access to all pathways.”

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