Can we raise standards and graduation rates at the same time?

The House Public Education Committee in the Texas Legislature has come under criticism this week for unanimously approving a bill that would take the teeth out of the end-of-course exams to be introduced next school year, as reported by the Dallas Morning News. The committee gave as its rationale a desire to give more control to local school districts, many of which appear to have requested a delay in introducing the new tests because of budget cuts.

According to the Dallas Morning News, “If the full House approves the legislation, it would put the chamber at odds with the Senate, where the chairwoman of the education committee, Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has promised there will be no retreat on the end-of-course tests in high school or the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness in middle and elementary schools.”

The bill’s passage into law seems unlikely, but its very proposal is a reminder of the inherent tension between high standards and high graduation rates.

It seems clear that if graduation requirements are lessened, more students will earn diplomas. Or, alternatively, as requirements are ratcheted up, fewer students will make it to graduation.

Of course, many students who drop out are capable of succeeding academically. Research shows that factors outside of the home – like having to earn money to feed a family, or having to take care of an ailing parent – contribute to the country’s dropout problem. Other students drop out not because school is too difficult but because it is too boring; weakening graduation standards would likely do little to keep such students in school.

But in many cases, academic standards and graduation rates are linked. I’ve talked to schools that are being asked to raise standards and graduation rates simultaneously, and they’re struggling with how to strike a balance between the two. In fact, it’s a question the entire country is wrestling with.

Nationally, between 25 and 30 percent of high-school students fail to graduate. But rigorous standards aren’t the likeliest culprit, as standards at most schools aren’t particularly high. After all, significant numbers of high-school graduates who go on to college must enroll in at least one remedial course.

It’s not impossible for schools to ramp up their academics and get more students through to diplomas at the same time. Indeed, places like some “no-excuses” charter schools pride themselves on the exceptionally difficult curriculum they require students to take as well as on high graduation and college-going rates.

Early College High Schools — in which students have the opportunity to earn up to two years of college credit while still in high school — had an 85 percent graduation rate in 2009, and most students graduate with at least some college credits as well.

But many states and school districts are still trying to figure out how to reconcile the push for higher standards with the pressure to lower dropout rates. To many, accomplishing both is a daunting task – and one that keeps educators, reformers and policymakers awake at night.