-- Alexander the Great
For much of our nation’s history, the mission was to provide rudimentary education for most children while preparing the more capable students for college. That mission could be characterized as universal access, ensuring that all students had a fair shot at a high school diploma.
Our schools did a commendable job in achieving that mission. Figure 1 includes data from a historical report (pg. 55) provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). It shows that the percent of 17 year-olds who graduated from high school rose steadily throughout the 20th century.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the mission of public schools shifted dramatically. The new mission became one of universal success; and by the end of the century, our schools were expected to ensure graduation for all students. That change reflected the new reality that living wage jobs now required at least a high school diploma. In spite of the significant challenge represented by this new mission, there was very little public discussion regarding what it would take to achieve that goal. Because of their fundamental commitment to students, most educators dug in and worked hard without significant added resources to achieve this new mission.
As if graduation for all students wasn’t enough of a challenge, at about the same time, we began dramatically increasing what was required to earn a diploma. Table 225.10 in the 2014 NCES Digest of Education Statistics shows the trend of credits earned by high school graduates between 1982 and 2009. The graph in Figure 2 is based on that report.
The chart doesn’t speak to increasing rigor that has occurred within many of these credits. Math requirements provide a good case in point. It used to be fairly common for school systems in Washington state to have a two-track math system. College-bound students would take a sequence that culminated in at least Algebra II, while those in the non-college track could meet their requirement with various forms of math generally below the level of Algebra I. In the mid-1990s, I helped lead a school district through the fairly radical change of requiring at least Algebra I and Geometry for all students. No school district in our region had such a demanding requirement at that time. In the two decades since then, the state graduation requirement has increased to include Algebra II or the equivalent for all students.
This increase in math requirements is part of the most recent shift in the mission of our public schools. Universal success with a high school diploma is no longer enough. Our schools must now ensure universal college readiness in which all students are career and college ready. In practical terms, this means that in Washington and most other states, high school diploma requirements have become directly linked to college entrance requirements. Again, this significant change in mission has occurred with very little public debate or discussion about what resources it will take to achieve the goal. And once again, educators across the state and nation have rolled up their sleeves and are working hard to help all students achieve this new standard.
Clearly, expectations have increased significantly for our public schools over the past few decades. But in spite of ever-more challenging standards, the dropout rates across the nation continue to improve. The chart in Figure 3 is from the 2015 NCES report on dropout rates (pg. 21). It shows that the rate not only improved at the very time graduation standards were increasing, it also improved for all three major ethnic subgroups, and the gap between those subgroups decreased significantly.