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'Restoring Value' to the High School Diploma: The Rhetoric and Practice of Higher Standards

This policy brief examines the recent wave of commission reports that have attacked the American high school and called for its "reinvention." Two conceptions of rigor are dominant: test-based rigor, requiring higher scores on conventional tests; and course-based rigor, requiring more demanding courses. However, these conventional academic conceptions neglect several other conceptions of rigor: as depth rather than breadth; as more sophisticated levels of understanding including "higher-order skills"; and as the ability to apply learning in unfamiliar settings. With very few exceptions, both graduation requirements and exit exams replicate the conventional academic curriculum of the late nineteenth century, and they have little to say about how their imposition will enhance student performance generally. Overall, the push to enhance rigor and standards behind the high school diploma is seriously flawed. Moreover, any gains come at the expense of other goals for high school reform, including equity, curricular relevance, and student interest. A more promising approach to reshaping the high school involves pathways, structured around a coherent theme, either broadly occupational or non-occupational.