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In Most States, Graduating from High School Doesn’t Mean You’re Ready for College

Michael Nutter

February 27, 2019

In many states, high school graduation requirements and state college admission requirements are severely misaligned, leaving many students floundering in a “preparation gap.”

Many students (and their parents) assume earning a high school diploma means they’re well-positioned to meet or exceed state university admissions requirements. Unfortunately, in many states, that’s just not the case.

According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, most states’ high school graduation requirements are severely misaligned with their state university admissions requirements. So misaligned, in fact, that students in these states often suffer from a major “preparation gap” — though they’ve been allowed to graduate from their high schools, they don’t qualify for admission at their nearby state universities.

The report examined coursework requirements in art, English, foreign languages, math, science, and social studies, and found that satisfying baseline diploma requirements only qualifies a student for public college admission in four states: Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

That means that in 46 states — Ohio among them — graduation requirements and college admission requirements don’t align. With Ohio’s high school graduation requirements in flux, now is an opportune time for the state to craft requirements that offer students the greatest opportunity for postsecondary success. However, doing so will require broad cooperation between secondary and postsecondary leaders, something which isn’t easily accomplished.

When the Paths to Graduation and College Admission Don’t Align

Most state diploma requirements fall short in one of two ways: they either don’t meet the admissions requirements for the state’s public universities or they afford students too much choice. Ohio falls into the latter group.

While Ohio’s high school requirements for English, math, science, and social studies line up with Ohio State University’s (OSU’s) admissions requirements — both require four, four, three, and three courses, respectively — OSU also requires that students complete two units of the same foreign language (but recommends three) and at least one unit of visual or performing arts.

The Ohio public school system, on the other hand, requires students to complete five electives on top of their core subject matter requirements, but does not specify any expectations regarding foreign language coursework. And while Ohio schools do require students to take two semesters of fine art, these courses can be taken in middle school — and in such cases do not qualify students for OSU admission.

The disparity between graduation and admission requirements is, at its core, an issue of equity. Nationwide, the counselor to student ratio is about 1 to 491, but in poor and high-minority population areas, this ratio jumps to 1 to 1,000. Students in affluent areas are therefore far likelier to be aware of college admissions requirements and adjust their high school coursework accordingly; students in poorer communities, on the other hand, are at a much higher risk of getting stuck in the “preparation gap.”

Alternate Requirements Call College Readiness into Question

In addition to these disparities, Ohio’s relatively flexible path to graduation may indicate that even students whose coursework aligns with university requirements aren’t prepared for the rigors of college.

Less than a week before Christmas, Ohio’s legislature signed Substitute House Bill 491 (H.B. 491) into law, establishing high school graduation requirements for the Classes of 2019 and 2020. H.B. 491 affirmed that the Class of 2019 will have the same pathways to graduation as the Class of 2018, offering “alternate requirements” — including completing a senior year capstone project or performing 120 hours of community service — to students who fail to score a cumulative 18 points (out of 35) on the Ohio Graduation Test.

These alternatives are intended as a corrective to the Ohio Graduation Test’s low pass rate. Though the test was first developed in 2006, criticisms that it was too easy and lacked real-world applicability led to the introduction of a more difficult version of the test in 2013. Unfortunately, pass rates for the new test hovered around 50 percent. These alternate pathways to graduation were designed to elevate that number, meaning many Ohio students who receive high school diplomas actually failed the state’s graduation test and may not be truly prepared to graduate — or progress to college.

It’s clear that Ohio has a lot of work to do when it comes to closing the gap between high school completion and college readiness, but bridging this divide will require broad cooperation between secondary and postsecondary stakeholders to identify common goals and create a clear path to college readiness. Based on Ohio students’ widespread inability to pass the state’s graduation test, it’s likely that this path needs to begin long before senior year. Regardless of how Ohio stakeholders decide to tackle this challenge, getting everything in order is going to require an immense amount of funding and resources.

That’s why a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform is invaluable. With CheckPoint, district administrators can ensure their enrollment data is complete, organized, and error-free at all times, enabling their districts to receive every last dollar to which they’re entitled. A tool like CheckPoint will be an essential element of facilitating every student’s success until — and even after — Ohio’s high school graduation requirements come into alignment with its college admissions requirements.

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