This month, more than 20,000 East Valley students will proudly march away from commencement ceremonies with their diplomas in hand. But what it means to have a high school diploma is changing in Arizona, for a number of reasons.
This year, the Arizona Board of Education changed the requirements for high school graduation, raising the minimum requirement from three to four math classes, two to three science classes and two-and-a-half to three social studies classes for the class of 2013. Supporters said this aimed to strengthen the quality of Arizona high school graduates.
Gov. Janet Napolitano signed a House bill this week that reinstated an expired state law allowing seniors to boost their AIMS test results with good grades in certain classes. AIMS, Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, is a test students are required to pass to graduate. Some argue that making exceptions to that rule will devalue the diploma.
Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, who sponsored the bill, said bonus points for AIMS have always existed and that if it does change the value of a diploma, it’s only to make it stronger.
“It rewards hard-working students,” he said. “They have to take the test every time, get a C or better in their coursework and seek outside tutoring.”
It’s only getting harder to get a diploma in Arizona, he said, and earning one should be meaningful to anyone who has accomplished it.
But Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, said the high school diploma is becoming less valuable.
Due to changes like high-stakes testing and a move toward more math and science courses for graduation, he said, districts are narrowing the curriculum and getting rid of courses that benefit students such as physical education, art and music.
“Schools, in my view, are moving in the wrong direction. Instead of diversifying, they are narrowing it down,” said Anderson, who chairs the legislature’s K-12 education committee. “Today, having a diploma is really not that helpful. It’s better than not having a diploma, but it doesn’t mean you have the skills to get a good job.”
However, he does think there are reforms that could make it more meaningful. One way, he said, is to extend the school day to give schools time to teach more math and science and still offer arts and physical activity.
According to information released last week from the Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit education think tank, the rate of graduation in Arizona slid 7 percent since 2004, dropping the number of students who graduate from high school to 70 percent.
The Department of Education has argued that those numbers aren’t accurate because they are based on two different reporting systems.
Still, dropouts are a problem in Arizona, said Sybil Francis, executive director of the center, and the cause is not clear.
“We looked at different ethnic groups, we looked at AIMS,” Francis said. “And no obvious reasons jumped out .”
Even a high school diploma is no guarantee of financial stability in today’s economy.
“If somebody says to themself, in their mind, ‘High school is the furthest I’m going to go,’ the interesting thing is that just finishing high school doesn’t leave them that much better off than if they had dropped out,” Francis said.
She does not advocate that students drop out of high school. Instead, she says it’s becoming more important than ever to complete at least some higher education coursework.
In the 1950s, only about 50 percent of students graduated from high school. One hundred years ago, the figure was closer to 5 percent.
“Historically, we’ve been working toward a point of trying to get as many people to graduate as possible,” Francis said. “The mantra has been, “Get a diploma.” Now it’s “Get a diploma and go on.”
According to the “Bridging the Grad Gap” study conducted for the center, a person with a high school diploma and no further education can expect to earn about $26,300 a year versus someone with just some college coursework completed, who can expect closer to $31,400. And that’s the lifetime mean, not just what can be expected in the first years following school.
Arizona Board of Regents member Fred DuVal is part of the Coalition for Solutions Through Higher Education, a group formed last year to raise awareness about the state’s poor performance with regard to education, which it says has contributed to the United States’ declining economic power.
He said the numbers show that Arizona is behind not only in its high school graduation rates but also in its college admissions and completion rate and on spending on education in general.
“The statistics are alarming,” he said. “There is a direct, perfect correlation between the more you learn the more you earn.”
Keeping kids in school as long as possible isn’t only an education strategy, he said, but it’s also an economic strategy because as the standard of living for people goes up, the tax base is broadened.
The group has been traveling around Arizona delivering their message to business and civic groups and arguing that graduating more students from universities is essential to making sure the U.S. can compete in the global economy.
“Knowledge is the new natural resource,” DuVal said.