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Part 1: How high school graduation requirements developed

Posted Date: 07/01/2021

The Kansas State Board of Education has appointed a Task Force to study what should be required for students to graduate from high school. The question is whether the state should continue to use a system that mostly looks at how much time a student spends in subject area classes, what subjects should be required, and whether to consider different ways to measure whether students have met state expectations. 

At its first meeting, the Task Force reviewed how the modern high school was created more than 100 years ago by two major developments in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. 

First, the National Education Association’s “Committee of 10” recommended that high school be standardized at four years, following eight years of elementary school, with college degrees requiring four more years. It also proposed that “every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease."  

Second, educators at both the high school and college level agreed to standardize high school units of study based on time. Credit was given for the study of a subject for one hour per day, five days per week, 24 weeks per year, which evolved into the current system where students take six or more classes five days a week for the school year, or an equivalent period of time. (This system is called “Carnegie units” after the industrialist whose endowment helped create the modern college pension system - to participate, colleges had to use Carnegie units.) 

Reviewing information from the Digest of Education statistics, two things stand out about the time when high school structure was created: far fewer young people attended high school, but a higher percentage of that smaller number went on to college. 

In 1900, high school graduates equaled only 6.4 percent of the 17-year-old population nationally, and bachelor’s degrees conferred equaled less than 2 percent. However, bachelor’s degrees conferred in 1900 were over 60 percent of the high school diplomas awarded 10 years earlier, meaning approximately 60 percent of high school graduates completed a four-year college degree within 10 years. The current high school model was designed at time when completing high school was an elite accomplishment and was largely designed to prepare students for academic courses in college. 

That began to change rapidly during first half of the 20th century as social and economic expectations changed. High school graduates reached 50 percent of the 17-year-old population in 1940 and continued to climb to almost 80 percent in 1970. That rate then stagnated for 30 years. In 2000, the percent of high school diplomas compared to 18-year-olds was just under 70 percent – the same rate as in 1960. 

College attainment also rose rapidly in the 20th century, but not as fast as high school completion. Bachelor’s degrees conferred in 1900 equaled over 60 percent of high school graduates ten years before (1890), but dropped to 30 percent in 1930 and remained between 30 and 40 percent until 1990. 

The 1980’s and 1990’s were a time of deep concern about U.S. educational quality, perhaps best expressed by 1983’s “Nation at Risk” report from a panel chaired by Dr. Robert Haderlein, a school board member from Girard, Kansas, President of the National School Boards Association and past President of KASB. 

Among other recommendations, the report called for high school students to take more rigorous classes, sparking a trend nationally and in Kansas. Since 1980, Kansas has increased the minimum units for graduation from 17 to 21, adding units in math, science, and fine arts. Local school districts can require more than the state minimum, and most do. 

Kansas was reflecting national trends. According to the U.S. Digest of Education Statistics, the average number of total Carnegie units earned by high school graduates increased from 21.58 in 1982 to 27.15 in 2009, the latest year reported – basically the equivalent of another year of study. On average, students earned more than a full additional credit each in math, science, and foreign language. 

In addition, the percentage of students taking dual college credit, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses in high school nationally increased from 27.6 in 2000 to 46.4 percent in 2009. In Kansas, the number of students taking dual or concurrent enrollment courses has continued to rise, from 22,720 in 2013 to 34,908 in 2020. 

Despite, or because of, higher requirements, both high school and college completion rates have increased since the 1980’s and 1990’s. Compared to the 17-year-old population, in 2019 high school graduates reached 87 percent and bachelor’s degrees confirmed reached 47.7 percent – both all-time highs. The percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded compared to high school graduates 10 years prior was nearly 60 percent in 2010 and 2019 – almost as high as in 1900. 

As a share of the adult population over 24 years, college attainment has also risen, from 4.6 percent both nationally and in Kansas in 1940 to 32.6 percent nationally and 33.4 percent in Kansas in 2018, also all-time highs. As college attainment has increased, the economic value of a college degree, measured by average earnings, employment and poverty rates have also increased. 

With educational attainment increasing, why has the State Board called for a study of graduation requirement? Those reasons will be explored in the next post. Here is a link to more information on the Graduation Requirements Task Force.  

See charts below: 

chart with grad statistics