Making a Difference: Eight State Legislative Policy Recommendations for Improving America’s High Schools

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Making a Difference


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Bringing the American high school system into the 21st century is one of the greatest challenges facing our nation. If America is to compete in the information-age economy, young people must be prepared for success in postsecondary education and a labor market that is increasingly based on complex knowledge and skills beyond those acquired through a high school curriculum.

Since the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, state legislators have been at the center of a movement to improve high schools. In making these issues legislative priorities, state lawmakers are increasing the level of public attention to and understanding about the need to dramatically change our system of public high schools.

Major accomplishments include the following.

• States and school districts moving toward more accurate dropout and graduation rate reporting, with states learning more about how their high school performance compares nationally and internationally;
• A nationwide movement toward more rigorous, meaningful high school graduation requirements intended to elevate the high school diploma to a college- and work-ready standard; and
• An increased level of attention, focus and urgency among state legislators to find solutions to problems plaguing the American high school system.

The next generation of policies aimed at improving high school performance and better preparing students for college and careers views the issues on a K-20 scale; looks to college completion as an important milestone for states, high schools, and institutions of higher education; and includes consideration of international variables to ensure that American students can remain competitive. To continue this momentum, the four organizations that represent major education stakeholders within each state (the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education) collaborated in 2008 and 2009 to develop a jointly authored report, Accelerating the Agenda: Actions to Improve America’s High Schools, to help policymakers accelerate development of a college- and career-ready policy agenda. The report analyzes state progress to date and provides guidance to help states continue to move forward toward college- and career-readiness for all students.

State legislatures are on the front lines of developing bold new strategies to bring American high schools into the 21st century. To help state legislators’ continued progress, NCSL has expanded the recommendations in the jointly authored Accelerating the Agenda: Actions to Improve America’s High Schools to call attention to important legislative achievements and showcase innovative legislation that has the potential to dramatically improve high school performance and better prepare high school students for success in college and careers. State legislative action in the eight policy areas identified in this report can have a real and lasting effect when developed in conjunction with broad, statewide coordinated plans for high school improvement. Each of the recommendations includes specific examples of promising and innovative legislative actions in state legislatures nationwide.

December 2009