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Does Raising High School Graduation Requirements Improve Student Outcomes?

Niu Gao | February 2021

Summary

The abrupt shift to distance learning at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated inequalities in California’s K–12 system and added urgency to an ongoing discussion about the role of high school graduation policy in promoting equitable student outcomes.

More rigorous graduation requirements, particularly in math and science, can improve access to college by increasing enrollment in advanced courses, which might enhance college readiness and performance on standardized assessments. While high school graduation rates in California have increased in the past decade, nearly 40 percent of California high school graduates do not enroll in college; the disruptive impact of the pandemic has heightened this concern.

In this report, we review district graduation policies for the 2018–19 school year and examine the relationship between math and science requirements and student outcomes. Overall, we find:

  • Most districts have graduation requirements that exceed state minimums, which include two years of math and two years of science. During the 2018–19 school year, 59 percent of districts—enrolling 66 percent of the state’s K–12 population—required three or four years of math; 22 percent required three or four years of science.
  • Descriptively, districts with larger shares of Latinos, African Americans, low-income students, English Learners, and students with non-college educated parents are about as likely to have higher math requirements (three or four years) as are other districts.
  • Higher math graduation requirements are associated with better outcomes, particularly for students in high-need, high-poverty, and high-minority schools. These requirements do not appear to lead to lower high school graduation rates or higher dropout rates. Outcomes for students in rural schools and the lowest-performing schools do not appear to be affected.
  • The overall impact of science requirements is less certain: higher requirements are associated with a lower dropout rate, but enrollment in advanced courses and proficiency on standardized tests do not appear to be affected. Notably, students in high-poverty schools with higher requirements are 31 percent more likely to take advanced science courses and 2 percent more likely to graduate. Outcomes for students in rural schools appear unchanged.

Given the disruption caused by COVID-19, the first priority should be for districts to set up support systems to mitigate learning loss and prevent backtracking on improvements in high school graduation and college enrollment. After the pandemic ends, the state and its K–12 system could take several steps to ensure that graduation requirements have an equitable impact on college readiness:

  • The state should consider raising its minimum math requirements. Most districts already require three or four years of math and most students are already subject to a higher standard. The state will need to reimburse district expenditures such as additional staff and instructional materials, but such a policy change could benefit both individual students and the state, and the equity gains could be a long-term investment in the state’s economy.
  • In collaboration with the county offices of education, the state should provide more comprehensive support and technical assistance to rural and low-performing schools, where higher math and science standards are not associated with better academic outcomes.
  • The state should collect data on local graduation policies so that researchers and policymakers can evaluate their impact and identify areas for improvement, especially when it comes to ensuring such policies benefit Latinos, African Americans, low-income students, English Learners, and students with non-college educated parents.
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