Charlie Weaver: A high school diploma shouldn’t be a lump of coal

During the holiday season, I sometimes flash back to a joke my dad used to play on me at Christmas. He would find the biggest box he could, deposit something inside he knew that no self-respecting 6-year-old boy would want (usually socks or underwear), wrap it nicely and put it under the tree. Upon opening his gift, I would loudly complain: “This is not what I wanted!”

Today, another joke is being played out in the form of our state’s education policy — and the surprise could be something much crueler than getting socks for Christmas.

The gift our students deserve when they graduate from high school is a diploma indicating that they’re ready for postsecondary education. Increasingly, that is not what they’re getting.

The facts are startling. Forty percent of the graduating class of 2008 needed remedial coursework upon enrollment in a public postsecondary institution in Minnesota. Nationally, among students who do take remedial courses, fewer than 10 percent graduate from community colleges within three years, and only one-third complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. For students of color (the state’s fastest-growing student population), the numbers are even worse.

A generation ago, these kinds of statistics weren’t so troubling. Students who graduated from high school only (or in some cases even dropped out of high school), could find work that would earn them a modest living. But times have changed, and those jobs are vanishing. In fact, by 2018, 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require completion of some level of postsecondary education.

So how do we ensure that our seniors are ready to attend the University of Minnesota, or Minnesota State University, Mankato, or Alexandria Technical and Community College? The obvious answer is to figure out what colleges expect incoming students to know, set high school graduation requirements to match those expectations, then ensure that students can meet the requirements.

Which is exactly what legislators began to do nearly 15 years ago. They adopted standards in math, reading and writing and wisely determined (as have 25 other states) that high school graduates would need to demonstrate basic competency in those three areas.

Unfortunately, much of the work that has gone into aligning our K-12 and higher-education systems may soon be undone — at least if a working group convened by the state Department of Education gets its way. The group has proposed dropping the math, reading and writing graduation requirements.

That’s right. No longer would students be required to demonstrate competency in basic skills to get a high school diploma.

Supporters of the proposal argue that some students aren’t able to pass these tests (which were developed by teachers and test at only about a 10th-grade level) and that it’s “unfair” to deny them a diploma. What is far more unfair is to graduate a student without the basic skills needed to succeed in the world.

If the Legislature were to adopt these unwise recommendations, our students would lose a valuable assurance that their diploma means something. Also, employers would no longer be certain that our graduates have the foundational skills they need to enter the workforce.

The jobs of the future will require more rigor in the classroom, not less. If Minnesota students are having difficulty passing a basic skills test, our response should not be to eliminate the test but to ask why they’re falling short and make sure they can meet expectations.

My dad giving me socks for Christmas was twisted but kind of funny (particularly now that I can do it to my own children). But a high school diploma that doesn’t prepare Minnesota kids for a postsecondary education? Now that’s just cruel.

Charlie Weaver is the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents more than 100 CEOs from Minnesota’s largest employers.

This commentary appeared in the December 28, 2012 edition of the Star Tribune.