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Alternative High School Graduation Pathways

Written by Dr. Brittany Whitley and Dr. Alan Moss
Published on February 18, 2022
Research Highlights

Allowing students to advance through high school based on subject mastery rather than credit hours is an emerging approach that is meant to improve high school completion and ensure college and career readiness in the United States.


  • High school graduation standards are typically determined by credit hours, or “seat time.” However, existing high school diploma standards may not be indicative of a student’s college & career readiness.
  • Several states and school districts have started to implement competency-based education innovations over the past decade, including alternative high school graduation standards. Arizona’s Grand Canyon Diploma Program, which most closely mirrors the Show Me Success Diploma, has graduated almost two hundred students over seven years.

Executive Summary

Colleges, employers, and communities expect that students who earn high school diplomas will be prepared for success after graduation, whether in higher education, the workforce, or civic life. Allowing students to advance through high school based on subject mastery rather than credit hours is an emerging approach that is meant to improve high school completion and ensure college and career readiness in the United States. Senate Bill 660 and House Bill 1956 would establish the “Show Me Success Diploma” as an alternative high school graduation pathway available after the tenth grade. Diploma recipients who have demonstrated mastery of the established standards can stay enrolled in high school or move on to a job or college. For students who enroll in a postsecondary institution before the end of their twelfth year, 90% of the state, local, and federal funds that would have been spent on their high school education will be deposited into a Missouri Education Savings Account in their name.


  • Because most accelerated diploma programs are relatively new and vary across states and school districts, there is limited research about how these programs affect high school graduation rates, college enrollment, and completion.
  • It is difficult to predict the number of students that would participate in and complete the proposed program in Missouri and therefore the costs of program implementation.
  • Although students who enroll in college early are likely to attend local community colleges or trade schools, there is not enough information to determine the social-emotional impacts of students entering college at a younger age than their peers.

Research Background

High school Graduation Requirements: Seat time vs. Mastery

For over a century, most American high schools have determined graduation requirements based on seat time or the number of hours spent in particular courses. However, there is evidence that under existing seat time requirements, not all high school graduates are prepared for college and/or the workforce.1,2 Some students may drop out of high school because of family and job responsibilities, lack of academic support, or disciplinary actions.3 Because students master topics at different rates and have unique educational needs and career goals, many school districts and states have started to explore competency- or mastery-based education programs as a way to improve graduation rates and ensure college & career readiness (Figure 1).4 Virtual learning, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, has also accelerated the consideration of these programs in order to provide more flexible, personalized options without sacrificing educational quality. While competency-based education programs are a promising approach for students who may not be successful under the existing system, additional research is needed to understand the extent to which these programs impact high school graduation rates and postsecondary success.

In the absence of existing competency-based education programs, education nonprofits in Kansas City, led by PREP-KC and the Kauffman Foundation, have identified four “market value assets” (MVAs) that are particularly valued by higher education and employers: (1) college credit earned in high school, (2) industry-recognized credentials, (3) career experiences (e.g., robust job shadowing and internships), and (4) entrepreneurial experiences with real-world projects.5 Students who graduate with traditional high school diplomas and one or more MVAs are more likely to enroll in and complete post-secondary education and training.6-8 Because an accelerated high school diploma program would allow for increased access to college courses and career & technical education, we expect that students graduating from this pathway may also experience improved success in college and the workforce.

Accelerated High School Diploma Programs in the United States

Most high school students have the opportunity to graduate high school early under the standard graduation criteria if they are willing to take summer school classes and extra credits during the school year. Tennessee offers an accelerated high school graduation program that reduces the total number of credits that students must complete. After five years, only four students enrolled in the accelerated program, in comparison to almost 3,500 Tennessee students who graduated early during that time under the traditional system.9 Senate Bill 660 / House Bill 1956 would not prevent motivated Missouri students from using the traditional graduation pathway to graduate early. Rather, it would establish a unique, additional approach to evaluating and progressing students through school based on their understanding of specific subjects.

Several states (e.g., Indiana, Illinois, Colorado) are currently implementing pilot programs to allow for high school diploma flexibility based on mastery rather than seat time. The provisions in Senate Bill 660 & House Bill 1956 most closely mirror the existing Arizona Grand Canyon Diploma Program. The diploma option is currently available to over 50,000 students in over 20 Arizona high schools.10 Seven years after the legislation passed, 192 students had received the Grand Canyon Diploma. At this stage, however, there is insufficient information to compare college and workforce outcomes of Grand Canyon Diploma recipients to those students who receive a traditional diploma. It is also unclear how many students attempted but did not complete the accelerated diploma program. Since the program was implemented, Arizona has observed a slight increase in high school graduation, but it is not possible to directly attribute this to the Grand Canyon Diploma program.11

One concern about early high school graduation is that students will miss out on the high school experiences that are important for their social-emotional development and future success in college & the workforce. However, for students who might otherwise drop out of high school and those who feel prepared for the next step, the accelerated pathway increases educational options. Finally, states that have unsuccessfully attempted to roll out a statewide overhaul of all four-year, credit-based graduation requirements (e.g., Maine), highlight the importance of clear, state-level guidance and school district standards and the availability of sufficient training and resources to facilitate implementation of any competency-based program.


  1. ACT, Inc. (2019) Condition of College and Career Readiness.https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/National-CCCR-2019.pdf
  2. MO Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development. (2019) Missouri Economic & Workforce Report.https://meric.mo.gov/sites/meric/files/media/pdf/2019/09/MOworkforce19final.pdf
  3. Doll, J. J., Eslami, Z., & Walters, L. (2013). Understanding Why Students Drop Out of High School, According to Their Own Reports: Are They Pushed or Pulled, or Do They Fall Out? SAGE Open, 3(4), 2158244013503834. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244013503834
  1. Truong, N. (2019). iNACOL Releases Updates to the Snapshot of K-12 Competency Education State Policy Across the United States. Aurora Institute. https://aurora-institute.org/blog/inacol-releases-updates-to-the-snapshot-of-k-12-competency-e ducation-state-policy-across-the-united-states/
  2. PREP-KC. (2020). 2018-19 Impact Report.
  3. Mid-America Regional Council. (2017). Career and Tech Education in Greater Kansas City.http://kcworkforce.com/Assets/reports/CTEReport.pdf
  4. Dougherty, S. (2016). Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes? Thomas B. Fordham Institute. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED570132.pdf
  5. Fink, J., Jenkins, D., & Yanaguira, T. (2017). What Happens to Students Who Take Community College “Dual Enrollment” Courses in High School. Community College Research Center. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED578185.pdf
  6. Bergfeld, T., Polanchek, C., & Potts, K. (2017). Evaluation of the Tennessee Move on When Ready Program. Tennessee Office of Research and Education Accountability. https://comptroller.tn.gov/content/dam/cot/orea/advanced-search/2017/2017_OREA_Moveo nWhenReady.pdf
  7. Center for the Future of Arizona (2022) Move On When Ready. https://www.arizonafuture.org/programs/education-programs/move-on-when-ready/
  8. NationalCenterforEducationStatistics.(2020)Publichighschool4-yearadjustedcohort graduation rate (ACGR), by selected student characteristics and state: 2010-11 through 2018-19. Digest of Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_219.46.asp
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