WASHINGTON - The high school diploma is losing its value quickly, as a growing number of graduates leave school without the math and reading skills that colleges and employers demand, according to a new report.
And the high school exit exams that most states require students to pass before they graduate remain far too easy, the study by the American Diploma Project found. Most of the exams generally test eighth- or ninth-grade level work.
Given the increasingly technical demands of the workplace, even high school graduates headed to blue-collar jobs need to study the challenging algebra, geometry, research and writing courses that only college-bound students are now required to take, the report's authors conclude.
"If you want a decent job at a decent wage, it's a high-skill job," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., one of the education policy groups driving the America Diploma Project.
The project's report - the result of a two-year effort involving governors and dozens of businesses, educators and researchers around the country - calls for a dramatic upgrade of the high school English and math courses required of all students.
The project's backers recommend that all graduates master a wide range of skills - from spotting false premises in an argumentative essay to understanding right-triangle trigonometry.
"A high school diploma should mean something to an employer and university," said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, who is Achieve's co-chairman.
In Taft's state, three in 10 students who go directly to college from high school end up taking remedial English or math classes, he said. "It's evidence that the current high-school graduating standards are not preparing students."
And with high-skilled jobs increasingly headed overseas to places like India and Ireland, states need to act, he said.
To demonstrate why math and reading skills matter, the report includes real-life examples of problems students confront in college and that workers must solve each day on the job. A machine operator apprentice at Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn., for instance, must have some grasp of algebra to correctly mix fertilizer and water.
At Granite Construction Co., a civil engineering company in Sparks, Nev., officials routinely provide remedial training to workers who need to brush up on math or require help understanding technical manuals, said Denny Martindale, the company's Nevada sales manager and one of the business executives involved in the diploma project.
"We do heavy highway construction," he said. "It could be very expensive for us if you can't calculate volume and cubic yards."
Some states are making strides to upgrade the high school diploma, the report's authors said. In Indiana, one of five states working closely with the diploma project, a push is under way to tie eligibility for financial aid at state colleges to students' successful completion of a rigorous group of college-prep courses in high school.
And in Texas, all high school students, starting with the 2008 graduating class, will have to take the college-prep curriculum - unless a parent and counselor agree to an easier course load. Other states are planning similar moves.
In addition to Achieve, groups that worked on the diploma project include the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education-reform group, and The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of poor and minority children.
The report includes specific examples of reading and math skills that high-school students should possess. Project leaders say they hope parents will use those examples to judge the rigor of the coursework at their kids' high schools.