It's no secret that in many high schools a diploma is little more than a certificate of attendance. While Arizona has tenuously adopted the AIMS graduation test as a solution, a coalition of 13 other states has agreed to try tougher courses and higher standards.
The goal is to have every high school graduate — and these states account for more than a third of them — ready for college or the job market. The plan calls for a core curriculum of rigorous courses backed by regular testing.
The governors who announced it may be laying down a marker in advance of President Bush's announced plan to extend the annual tests in reading and math in the No Child Left Behind Act to the high school level. Just recently the National Conference of State Legislatures issued a harshly critical report on the education law, calling it inflexible, unworkable and unconstitutional. That may be, but Bush had a point in insisting that meaningful reform has to have standards, testing and accountability.
Bush felt that if the states didn't act, the federal government would have to. But education in the United States has traditionally and properly been a state and local responsibility, one that these 13 states, at least, seem determined to accept.
Like Arizona's AIMS test, it will take a lot of work by a lot of people to make this plan succeed. There is an inherent contradiction in both raising the standards for graduation while simultaneously raising graduation rates. If the diploma is to be meaningful, it will be harder for some students to obtain. Avoiding that harsh outcome through relaxed standards and social promotion is why we have the problem of unqualified graduates in the first place. And this plan doesn't address an intractable root cause of poor academic performance: dysfunctional families.
But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Like AIMS, this is a laudable effort to make the high school diploma stand for something.