5 Problems with an Early High School Graduation Policy

High schools in eight states will introduce a college preparedness test program in 2011 that will allow 10th graders who demonstrate high school proficiency to graduate early and enroll in community college, reports the New York Times. One can see these tests as a dangerous incentive for kids to bolt from high school, or as a prudent warning system that teaches kids the skills they will need to graduate.

I spoke to Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, about the new school initiative. He called it "fantastic" and questioned the assumption that high school should necessarily take four years for all students regardless of achievement or mastery. On first blush, I agree with Hess that this program offers students and families an intriguing way to streamline their education and careers -- provided that the graduation tests are rigorous and their local community colleges are standing by to adequately prepare them.*

But Hess also noted five things that could go wrong with the program. (I'm more optimistic than Hess about a national standard for these kind of tests, but his other critiques are spot on).

1) Avoid national standards. Hess said he hopes the eight states make a compact to write standard tests that are hard but fair, but he's worried about national programs impacting dozens of states, which could regress to the lowest common denominator and make the tests easier than they should be.

2) Some schools might not be ready. In the Free School Movement of the 1960s and 70s, a handful of pioneers built terrific, daring programs that offered a more open-ended curriculum. But the movement suffered when less committed and knowledgeable imitators tried and failed to replicate the results. That could happen here, Hess says. It's easy to identify high schools that can adequately prepare early college students, such as strong counseling and committed faculty. This program could be wasted on schools that aren't prepared to graduate college students in two years.

3) Teaching the test. As with any standardized test, there is the risk that teachers wind up with a lot of instruction that's purely about prepping students to leave early rather than fostering a deeper understanding of the material.

4) Culture change. If this program encourages students to study hard and understand the demands of a college curriculum two years before they graduate high school, that's great. But the option to leave school early could, for many students, make staying in school seem less cool. It could push away kids who would have stayed four years and applied to more selective schools without the early graduation option.

5) Are community colleges ready? "Community colleges have a lot of love of late, for reasons that are't clear to me," Hess begins. This program creates demand for colleges that might not be any better than the high schools that kids have left early. "We have to make sure these kids have good choices beyond high school. We have to make sure other institutions are feeling pressed to improve."