New Graduation Requirements Mean Fewer Grads

MMC graduation rates among quartiles
5-year graduation rate after MMC implementation. Graph by Michigan Consortium for Educational Research. Dark line is the lowest-achieving quartile.

Fewer students are graduating on time under Michigan's tougher graduation requirements. 

In 2006, the state Legislature passed a law that specified and dramatically increased the number of courses high school students needed to take to graduate. Under the Michigan Merit Curriculum, students are now required to take four credits of math, four credits of language arts, three credits of science and three credits of social studies, along with a few other credits in miscellaneous subjects.

The first group of Michigan high school students subject to these new requirements entered as freshmen in the fall of 2007. Of these students, those who graduated on time would have exited high school at the end of the 2010-11 school year.

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Overall, researchers found that the graduation rate among these students declined from 72 percent to 70 percent, meaning that about 2,600 more students failed to graduate after four years in a Michigan high school. However, the more interesting finding is how higher-achieving students (the top quartile of entering students) compared to lower achieving students (the bottom quartile of entering students).

MMC requirements didn't appear to have an effect on the graduation rates of the top quartile. But, among the bottom quartile, the MMC appears to have reduced the number of students who graduated after four and five years, and appears to have increased the number of students who dropped out of school after five years.

This is not surprising — it makes sense that tougher graduation requirements would result in fewer students graduating on time and would lead to an increase in the drop-out rate.

But, if these trends continue, it is important for state officials to ask themselves what the end goal of the MMC actually is. Are the stricter graduation requirements imposed under MMC worth fewer struggling students graduating on time — or even at all? 

Indeed, researchers estimate that the five-year graduation rate for students in the bottom quartile declined by 5 percentage points after MMC requirements were imposed.

The MMC requirements seem suitable for students preparing to enter a conventional four-year college program. But these requirements might not be suitable for all students, and are likely limiting the amount of time students have to take other courses.

I recently wrote about the opportunities available to students at Calumet High School. Students there have the opportunity to take Computer Aided Design courses and to work with university students on advanced technical projects, along with being able to take standard shop courses. Calumet administrators have voiced concern that state requirements limit the courses they can offer students. 

Administrators across the state are likely feeling similar pressure. In the wake of MME, there are now fewer teachers available to teach non-MMC courses. Researchers found that the proportion of high school teachers in non-MMC or mixed academic areas decreased from 41 percent to 28 percent between 2004 and 2011.

MMC's one-size-fits-all approach is changing the composition of Michigan's high school teachers, and appears to be leading to fewer low-achieving students graduating on time.

The end goal of MMC may very well be to have all Michigan public school students take the same baseline of courses. But an important question to ask is whether these expanded requirements are helping students succeed after exiting the Michigan public school system — as graduates or as dropouts. 

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