New report examines how graduation requirements impact student outcomes

High school graduation policies play an important role in promoting equitable outcomes for students, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California report.

Does Raising High School Graduation Requirements Improve Student Outcomes? reviewed district graduation policies from the 2018–19 academic year and looked at the relationship between math and science requirements and student outcomes.

The report noted four findings, one of them being that most districts in the state exceed the minimum requirement of two years of math and science courses. At the time, 59 percent of districts required three or four years of math and 22 percent required three or four years of science.

It also found that districts with larger shares of Latinos, African Americans, English learners, low-income youth and students with non-college educated parents are roughly as likely to have three or four years of math required as other districts.

Additionally, higher math requirements are associated with better outcomes, especially for those who attend high need, high poverty and high minority schools, the report found. “These requirements do not appear to lead to lower high school graduation rates or higher dropout rates,” it states. “Outcomes for students in rural schools and the lowest-performing schools do not appear to be affected.”

Lastly, it concluded that the impact of science requirements isn’t as 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,” the report reads. “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.”

Student outcomes in rural schools were unchanged.

Effects of the pandemic and beyond

In the last decade, high school graduation rates have improved, yet almost 40 percent of graduates do not enroll in college. The COVID-19 crisis has heightened this concern, according to the report.

“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,” it states. “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.”

With disruptions caused by the pandemic taking place since the period analyzed, the report suggested districts establish systems of support to avoid learning loss and prevent losing improvements in graduation rates and college enrollment.

There are a few ways the state and K-12 system could help ensure high school graduation requirements most fairly prepare all students for college when the public health emergency ends.

The report proposes the state considers raising the minimum math requirement since most districts already require more than two years. “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,” the report reads.

It also asks the state to collaborate with county offices of education to provide more support and technical assistance to rural and low-performing schools where higher standards don’t lead to better academic performance.

Finally, the state should collect data on local graduation policies so researchers and policymakers can look at their impact and find areas that need improvement, particularly when it comes to making sure said policies benefit Latinos, African Americans, English learners, low-income students and students with non-college educated parents.