Slippery slope: Signs that relaxing high school academic standards can reduce value of college degree

Can lower high school academic standards lead to a devaluation of college degrees? Education authority Chester E. Finn, Jr., suggests the answer is yes and the process has already begun. 

In a new article for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Finn writes,

While ersatz “credit recovery” and grade inflation devalue the high school diploma by boosting graduation rates even as NAEP, PISA, PARCC, SAT, and sundry other measures show that no true gains are being made in student achievement, forces are at work to do essentially the same thing to the college diploma.

Observe the new move by CalState to do away with “remediation” upon entry to its institutions and instead to confer degree credit for what used to be the kinds of high-school-level content and skills that one had to master before gaining access to “credit-bearing” college courses.

It’s a short piece, so we encourage you to read it (and don’t want to just reproduce it here – fair use and all that). We will quote once more though:

This will surely cause an upward tick in college completions and degrees conferred (much as credit recovery has done for high school diplomas) but it will also devalue those degrees and cause any employer seeking evidence of true proficiency to look for other indicators. In the end, it will put pressure on many more people to earn post-graduate degrees and other kinds of credentials, thus adding to the length of time spent preparing for the “real world” and adding to the costs—whether born by students, families, or taxpayers—of that preparation.

…But what it really does is perpetuate the illusion of success in the absence of true achievement and weaken all versions of academic standards at the very moment most states have been taking steps to strengthen them.

The erosion of accountability and the consequences of such erosion have concerned us for some time. In our foundation report we wrote,

It’s imperative that the state continue to make improvements focused on better outcomes for students, particularly as it assumes the responsibility for providing a much higher than typical proportion of funding for the K-12 system.

Legislators recently enacted several measures that are expected to increase the probability that public education will better prepare students for 21st century success:

  • 2014: Passed a 24-credit requirement for graduation from high school (to be effective for students graduating in 2019). This better aligns graduation requirements with college-entry requirements.

We also noted the problem of inadequate college preparation.

Of students who graduated from public high school in 2009-10 and enrolled in community and technical college in 2010-11, 57 percent enrolled in at least one pre-college (developmental or remedial) course — most often in math. These disappointing numbers must be foremost in policymakers’ minds as they consider important questions of education policy and funding.

The problems continue. In an earlier post, we cited improved high school graduation rates nationally have not resulted in an increase in career- or college-readiness

The findings are important for legislators to consider, particularly during a session focused on education finance, reform and accountability. The NCSL story concludes by stating,

These numbers and others indicate a misalignment between the bar states set for graduation and the bar for college and career readiness. To better align their systems, states are redefining what it means to prepare students for college and career, and how best to measure their readiness.

When standards slip, it becomes more difficult to catch up. And, we’re seeing, easier to decide that catching up just isn’t worth the effort, leaving too many too far behind. 

Accountability. Standards. Performance. They all matter.