Mississippi education officials are planning to change the state’s high school diploma options, Mississippi Today has learned.
The move comes as a new national study out last week raised questions about the value of a high school diploma.
Details of the new state diploma options are not yet available. However, education officials told Mississippi Today that the goal is to develop one diploma with students able to earn different endorsements, including options such as career tech, academic, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).
“We wanted to make sure that when students leave high school, they understand what that diploma means and the parent understands and they’re ready for the next step, whether that’s post-secondary (education), military or a career,” said Jean Massey, executive director for secondary education.
A task force of educators and parents, along with people from the business and higher education communities, worked to come up with the new standards, which are expected to go to the State Board of Education for approval in January. If approved, the new options would go into effect during the 2017-18 school year.
“We are ramping up the rigor” with the new diploma options, State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said.
The state currently has five diploma options for students. Those include career pathway, district option, early exit exam, traditional pathway and the Mississippi Occupation Diploma option, which is only available for students with special needs. Under the new model, that occupation diploma will be phased out, officials said.
While many in the state education community are taking pride in an increased graduation rate in Mississippi as evidence that its students are more prepared, a new report by Achieve, a national nonprofit education reform organization, questions what a high school diploma signifies.
Achieve, which promotes the idea of college and career readiness for students, analyzed the 95 diploma options across the country and looked at which states expect students to take courses that academically prepare them for life after high school, defined as “college and career ready.”
Mississippi’s traditional diploma meets Achieve’s definition of college and career readiness, or completion of four years of rigorous, grade-level English courses and at least three years of math, through Algebra II or an equivalent math course. The state’s other options for graduation do not meet those standards.
Current diploma options
Although legislative leaders and higher education officials have expressed concerns about the amount of money the state spends on remediation each year, the state has only begun tracking how many in-state students graduated with an alternative diploma at the end of the 2015-16 school year.
“We have very limited information because all of the districts have not been reporting that (information),” Massey said.
However, she noted that the majority of students graduate with a standard diploma.
Achieve looked at each state’s reporting of 2015 high school graduates, finding that a majority of states do not publicly report how many students earn each category of diploma.
“The lack of transparency means that in most states there continue to be more questions than answers about the true value of a high school diploma,” the report stated.
Marie O’Hara, associate director of state policy and implementation support at Achieve, echoed that sentiment.
“All states should monitor how many students in each demographic subgroup are opting out of course sequences or modifying their course of study by opting out of specific courses that would ensure that they graduate college and career ready — whether the state requires a CCR (College and Career Readiness) course of study to earn a diploma or otherwise,” she said. “It is especially important for states that award a single diploma and permit students to opt out of, or substitute for, particular courses to know whether this policy provides an appropriate but infrequently used safety valve or a gaping loophole.”
Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning, which oversees the state’s public colleges and universities, relies less on state high school diploma requirements than its own across-the-board standards for admissions based on Carnegie units.
One Carnegie unit equates to 120 hours of class or contact time with an instructor over the course of a year at a high school level. Mississippi students must complete a certain number of Carnegie units in English, math, science, social studies, arts, advanced electives and technology to be accepted into a public college or university.
Although colleges don’t look at the specific diploma a student gets, alternate diplomas likely ensure the student doesn’t meet the required number of Carnegie units for core courses, college administrators say.
“It’s kind of a catch-22. If the student is going to have one of the certificates, they’re not going to have the core courses to meet IHL admission standards,” said John Dickerson, assistance vice president for enrollment at Mississippi State University. “They’ve got to meet those admission standards regardless of which diploma they have.”
Generally, community colleges accept any high school diploma or high school equivalency diploma unless specific programs have particular requirements. The colleges then use students’ ACT scores to place them.
Nationwide report findings
The Achieve analysis of diploma requirements across the nation found:
• In seven states and D.C., states set the expectation that all students will earn a diploma that includes College and Career Readiness requirements in English Language Arts and math.
• Mississippi is one of 27 states where students have multiple diploma options, but at least one of those options fall short of the College and Career Readiness (CCR) expectations in English Language Arts and math.
• Minnesota, Nebraska, and West Virginia graduated students with mandatory CCR expectations for the first time in 2015, and graduation rates either stayed the same or increased.
• Of 12 states and D.C. that provided the number of students completing a CCR course of study in 2014 and 2015, nearly 16,000 more students completed this course of study in 2015 compared to 2014.