States Raising the Bar on High School Graduation Standards

Published June 1, 2006

With a handful of states leading the way, high school graduation standards are climbing around the nation.

“Today we signed into law higher graduation standards for Michigan’s students,” said Chuck Wilbur, senior advisor for education to Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), after she signed the bill April 20. “In a ceremony involving both Democrats and Republicans, from both houses, we saw a real coming together around higher standards.”

With that, Michigan joined Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas as a state that has raised graduation standards in response to feedback from the business, college and university, and military communities complaining that many graduates are ill-prepared for life after high school. Each of these states has enacted legislation in the past few years that increases academic expectations for high school students.

Hoosier Expectations High

Indiana’s set of high school course and credit requirements, the Core 40 initiative, provides a strong example of what happens when educators, parents, and the business community collaborate to define standards for students, said Jason Bearce, director of communications for the Indiana Department of Education. Core 40 includes four years of English, three years of math, science, and social studies, at least five electives, plus physical education and health requirements.

“In 1994, our K-12 State Board of Education, the Commission on Higher Education, the business community, and many other stakeholders came together to establish the Core 40, a set of standards to help students prepare for life beyond high school,” Bearce explained. “Core 40 is preparation for everything beyond high school college, the military, vocational school, or immediately entering the workforce. At the time it was not mandatory, but as of 2007 it will be required for all students.”

In response to growing demands from business and university groups, Indiana decided in 2005 to retool the Core 40, creating four tracks: a General Diploma, Core 40, Core 40 with Academic Honors, and Core 40 with Technical Honors.

While the tracks hold some basic requirements in common, such as four years of English, specific credits are layered into the tracks to distinguish them. For example, Core 40 with Academic Honors mandates students complete three years of a foreign language, and the Technical Honors diploma, which Bearce described as “rigorous,” requires at least eight career-technical credits in a sequence designed to prepare students for high-wage, high-skill fields such as health, technology, and engineering.

Parents Satisfied

Tiffany Pache, a spokesperson for Achieve, Inc., a national nonprofit group that works with states to raise graduation requirements, noted the specific strengths of Indiana’s legislation.

“Indiana’s Core 40 provides a good example of strong graduation requirements,” Pache said. “In this instance, students, with parent approval, must opt out of the required courses, which is certainly an improvement compared to many states, where the higher standards have to be opted into. Requiring an opt-out as the standard and not an opt-in sends a stronger message about expectations.”

Bearce echoed Pache’s comments, noting parents have been very supportive of rigorous coursework and recognize the benefits for students.

“While it’s not for every student, we really do believe that the Core 40 coursework is the best preparation, even for students that have traditionally not been asked to meet high expectations,” Bearce said. “In 2000, we raised standards in Indiana, and when you raise standards, students rise to the occasion.”

Indiana Preparing Workers

Bearce said the Core 40 standard was not designed to raise graduation rates so much as to better prepare graduates for the workforce.

“Indiana has made substantial progress with respect to our college-going rate since Core 40 was established,” Bearce noted. “Over a 10-year period, Indiana has moved from being ranked 34th to 10th in the nation regarding the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college the following autumn.”

In addition, support from the business community and four-year colleges and universities in Indiana bolstered Core 40’s advancement.

“The business community was integral to advancing the recent legislation that will make Core 40 a requirement,” Bearce said, “and our four-year public colleges and universities have endorsed the curriculum as a minimum admission requirement by 2011.”

Michigan Responds to Economy

As in Indiana, bipartisan efforts in Michigan to raise high school graduation requirements resulted in part from the business community explaining its needs–chiefly, a better-educated workforce.

“If there is a reason we are able to do this now in Michigan, after attempts were made in the 1990s that did not succeed, it’s because people are recognizing that the level of educational attainment of our citizens does drive our economy, perhaps much more so than tax breaks or other policies that had been previously emphasized,” Granholm advisor Wilbur explained.

Michigan’s new education legislation requires four years of math and English, plus two years of foreign language and, uniquely, an online learning component mandating either that students take an online course for credit, or that schools demonstrate successful integration of technology into the curriculum. For a state that previously required high school graduates only to pass a civics course, Wilbur believes this is a step in the right direction.

Michigan’s requirements will take effect beginning with eighth graders in the fall of 2006.

Challenges Ahead

While Bearce and Wilbur both said they encountered little concerted opposition to raising standards in their states, they each also said implementing the changes would be a challenge.

In Michigan, for example, Wilbur said a dearth of qualified math and science teachers could make it difficult for some districts to comply immediately with the higher-level course offerings required. To counter this, Michigan’s law provides for a flexible implementation timeline.

Additionally, there was some resistance to raising math standards, particularly the Algebra II requirement.

“For some reason, some groups and individuals assume that some students cannot do math on that level,” Wilbur said. “We really believe that a subject like Algebra II is critical to keeping doors open for students, whether college bound or headed directly to the workforce.”

In Indiana, Bearce said, the challenges of implementation, like those in Michigan, were being handled innovatively.

“Some schools cannot offer as much variety at the higher levels,” Bearce said, “but we are working toward creative solutions, through distance education and school partnerships, to address these issues.”

Economic Prospects Boosted

Pache is encouraged by the higher standards–a trend that seems to be growing, with more than 10 other states now considering similar measures. For state economies and individual welfare, she said, it is a good approach.

“For states, too, there is a direct link–as the economic earning potential of the individual increases, the earning potential of that state rises, too,” Pache said. “For the individual worker, a bachelor’s degree will yield far greater income than a high school diploma.”

With concern over the high cost and need for remedial college education courses swirling nationwide, Bearce noted the importance of setting the bar high at the high school level.

“We recognize that going to college and succeeding in college are not the same thing,” Bearce said. “With a stronger preparation, through the Core 40, we believe that fewer students will drop out and fewer will need remedial classes to catch up to their peers.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer living in New Mexico. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

For more information on Indiana’s Core 40 initiative, go to

To learn more about Michigan’s new law, visit,1607,7-192-29939-141369–,00.html.

For more information about high school graduation standards nationwide, and particularly your state, visit