Speaking to the Michigan Board of
Education, state Superintendent Mike Flanagan declared Nov. 15, 2005, "an
historic day." Gilding his announcement with Crosby, Stills and Nash’s "Teach
Your Children Well," Flanagan announced that new-and-improved graduation
requirements would "change the face of public education."
With the aim of creating a more
skilled workforce, the superintendent unveiled a proposal that would require
Michigan students to take a total of 16 credits, distributed over various
subjects, before they can receive a high school diploma.
In addition to the one civics
credit currently required by
state law, Michigan high school students would have to take 15.5 additional
credits, including 4 credits of English, 4 credits of mathematics, 3
science credits, 2.5 social science credits in addition to civics, 1 credit of
physical education and a fine arts or music credit.
Raising state graduation
standards may seem to be an intuitive solution for improving education in
Michigan. However, based on Michigan public high school students’ achievement in
the area of the state’s single current graduation requirement, Michiganians
should not place their hope for a better public school system or economy in
higher state graduation standards.
One of the
problems these requirements are intended to fix is the currently high need
for remedial education. In fact, a Mackinac Center
study released in 2000 estimated that the cost to Michigan businesses and
post-secondary institutions of re-educating high school graduates with basic
skills is more than $600 million every year. To test whether higher state
graduation requirements would solve this problem, we can analyze the
effectiveness of the current standard. If we accept the logic employed by
proponents of more graduation requirements, the current state requirement should
be producing students who demonstrate exceptional competency in civics.
studies comprises a significant part of the Michigan Educational Assessment
Program test taken by Michigan 11th graders. From 1999 to 2005, an average of
only about 27 percent of test-takers met or exceeded state standards in social
studies (see Chart A). This means that, on average, nearly three-quarters of students who
graduated from Michigan public high schools in the past six years did not meet
the state’s standard for knowledge of basic economics, world geography, and the
history and institutions of the United States and Michigan. Admittedly, not each
of these areas is required by the state for graduation, though they may be by
Civics knowledge comprises one
"strand" of the social studies assessment, although several other questions
relate to civics generally. For two of the last six years (the tests
2002), the Michigan Department of Education provides data for each area
assessed on the social studies test, including civics. In 2001, an average of 62
percent of responses to multiple choice questions in civics were correct. In
2002, the average percentage of correct multiple choice answers to civics
questions dropped to 46 percent (see Chart B). These percentages are not the best indication
of student performance in civics because there were only five questions on each
of these two tests that were specifically civics-related. However, each question
required only the most basic knowledge of American government.
These basic data demonstrate that
Michigan’s single graduation requirement has not had the effects that advocates
of the new proposal posit their standards will have. This simple analysis tracks
with more general research. For example, over the past 30 years, increasing the
time spent by secondary school students in core subjects has not yielded
higher student achievement.
The debate over graduation
requirements is significant — high standards are an important aspect of
excellent education. But given the state’s lack of success with its one existing
requirement, we should not place much hope in this mandate to fix public
education or improve the economy.
Ryan S. Olson is director of
education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in
whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are