Recent scandals in places like Washington, D.C. have prompted debates over high school graduation requirements. Many observers rightfully express concern that students who are unprepared for the next stage of their lives might receive meaningless diplomas. They propose that we strictly enforce requirements.

If we take this advice, presumably fewer people will walk across a stage to receive a diploma they didn’t earn. On the plus side, these changes will make our school systems more honest about what high schools have achieved; and they will better inform graduates about their preparation for higher education. Unfortunately, along the way we may reduce opportunities for many young people to get the help they need to succeed as independent adults. People can argue about who deserves to graduate, however, if we decide to keep more kids from graduating, we should also agree that kids who don’t graduate deserve more public support that will also prepares them for the rest of their lives.

Instead of making a more strictly-enforced sorting device that denies more young people access to a good future, future systems that increase our ability to document a young person’s suitability for further study or training ought to tell us about all young people.  We should learn what dropouts know and can do. That way we can help them all transition to the next stage in their education, training, or work.

Recent years have seen significant increases high school graduation rates. Today’s scandals indicate that some of this increase has more to do with lowering standards than to gains in learning. Many districts now award diplomas to 15 percent more of their students than they did a decade ago. When it comes to the next phase of their lives, however, do we really think the bottom 10 percent of graduates are that different from the top 10 percent of dropouts?  And if both groups need a lot more help to become self-sufficient adults, we ought to not use the diploma to judge who is worthy of our continued support.

Diplomas have different uses for different audiences.  For students, they are a motivation. To be crass, the diploma is a reward for sitting still for four years, behaving as expected, and for doing all the work to master basic material. For employers and higher education institutions, a diploma is expected to certify that a student is ready for the next stage in their learning and growth. For society, leaving high school is a proxy for adult-hood; and the diploma means that the new adult succeeded at being a teenager. But our current diplomas don’t necessarily fulfill each audience’s needs.

Among both graduates and dropouts, there is a wide range in students’ knowledge and skills. Some of these new graduates may be academically closer to the better prepared dropouts than they are other graduates. Admittedly, this is more likely due to a generally poor state preparation than it is to large numbers of dropouts with strong skills.

But there are many dropouts who were doing fine in high school before things went poorly; just as there are many graduates who skated through high school with very low grades in classes that expected little of them.  If we learn more about both types of students, we can help them both.

Most of the debates over high graduation standards focus on attendance. Students were given credit for classes even though they had more absences than allowed in district policy. Technically, they should have failed their courses, which would have meant they didn’t earn enough credit to graduate.

In addition to “seat time”, diplomas signal mastery of content and the student’s ability to persevere and follow rules. But when a young person lacks a diploma, we don’t know why. Some didn’t attend class enough to pass. Others misbehaved. Others, attended and behaved, but didn’t learn the material well enough to pass. Labeling a person as a dropout doesn’t tell us which of these challenges tripped them up, only that they did not achieve all three.

Instead of focusing on what they lack, for both graduates and dropouts, it would help if we could better understand and certify what they have accomplished and what they are able to do. It is helpful to know if they could behave, if they persevered enough to attend regularly, and what they learned and are able to do.  And as we identify these strengths and assets, we can match them to services and programs where they are most likely to succeed. Ideally, more young people can be encouraged to do all the challenging work required in the next step, and we can counsel them to the most appropriate opportunities – where they can gain the skills and knowledge they need for whatever it is they want to do next.

There are some who argue that if we give a diploma away too easily, we “aren’t doing them any favors.”  I think I disagree. As long as many opportunities for further study or other support are tied to high school completion, and so many young people need more study and help, then a diploma may constitute a favor.  As we argue about where we draw the line between dropout and graduate, if we don’t invest enough in dropouts, we ought to revisit what it means to draw the line at all.

Giving fewer young people a diploma will increase our confidence that most of the remaining graduates are prepared, but it could also swell the ranks of the dropouts, who are less willing or able to continue their studies or prepare for well-paying work.

There’s a lot of handwringing about the graduation scandal at D.C. Public Schools. But there is little discussion about the underlying problem of the failures of American public education.

Instead of a slow-moving tragedy, recent debates could be helpful if they drive discussions about how we prepare all young people for the workforce or for further study and career training.

Far too many high school graduates and dropouts are not prepared to succeed after they leave high school. There are remarkable exceptions, including charter networks with strong records preparing more young people to earn college degrees. We should explore how to use similar strategies and tools to help more young people, regardless of where they are, transition successfully.

As it stands, American higher education (which includes traditional colleges as well as workforce training programs run by community colleges), and the kinds of jobs that include training, are all more likely to be available to high school graduates than they are to dropouts. Many programs explicitly target dropouts, and some of these opportunities are open to both graduates and dropouts.  But many young people who dropout decide not to try, or they don’t know how to pursue the most beneficial pathways. Compounding these individual tragedies, as a society, we are too comfortable with dropouts’ subsequent self-limiting decisions.

Unless we change our attitudes toward dropouts, efforts to deny diplomas to more young people are likely to reduce their access to further training – as well as the accompanying public investments in their futures.

We should certainly use this current debate to push for changes that clarify what it takes to earn a diploma. But we should also expand what we do as a society to prepare all these young people to succeed – even if they don’t graduate.