Diploma defiance

From New Bedford, Massachusetts to Oakland, California, low-performing school districts are threatening to defy the state by granting diplomas to students who’ve failed state-mandated graduation exams. School officials say it’s not fair to deny diplomas to students who’ve done what was asked of them, even if they lack basic skills.

Rebels want alternatives to the state exam, so that kids who’ve worked hard can move on with a diploma. But most frequent flunkers haven’t worked hard. From the Christian Science Monitor:

Washington state has developed a multitiered approach for alternatives. Students there can substitute their GPAs, portfolios, or SAT, ACT, or PSAT scores. CEP president Jennings says it could become a model.

Some 40 percent of Washington 10th- graders might have failed this year’s test, but only a fraction of students can use those waivers, says Charles Hasse, head of the Washington Education Association. “They are not really, in a meaningful way, providing alternatives,” he says.

Translation: The vast majority of these students who can’t pass the state exam after multiple tries have lousy grades and score poorly on all tests. Even the portfolio option, the most flexible option, requires them to have completed assignments.

Update: California’s state superintendent told Oakland to deny diplomas to students who haven’t passed the exam. The district was taken over by the state when it went bankrupt. New test results show more than 90 percent of California seniors have passed the graduation exam. In one district, two-thirds of seniors who haven’t passed the exam also lack the credits required for graduation. I suspect that’s typical.

About Joanne


  1. Nels Nelson says:

    Here’s a naive question, from someone almost completely uninformed about this issue: why can’t there be a two-tiered system of diplomas, one for those who’ve passed the state exam and another for those who’ve fulfilled only the local requirements? Way back in the day this is what we had in New York – I don’t know if it’s still done there – and it seemed to work fairly well.

  2. I believe all these issues hinged to citizen’s call for responsibility of the school and state government. It ends up with school or government trying to protect the brand name of the high school diploma. But the brand name question is really a secondary question.

    The main question is does withholding high school diploma really make school or government more responsible? The answer is an obvious NO.

    I think people forgot one important thing. The main purpose of education is to help student learn – not to grade the student. Evaluation should be done earlier in school and is used as a tool to help teacher helping students. Standard tests like SAT and ACT can serve the purpose of quality check. Personally, I see no use of state or district specified graduating test – which only make comparing quality difficult. Using the testing result to withold the diploma is especially useless and serve no purpose in improving students’ learning.

    Personally, I think the high school graduate brand name is really of limted use. In general, business will ask for it when hiring and Higher Ed. institution will ask for it when accepting enrollment. So. In general, it server the purpose of certificates. However, the value it represented is very vague. For one, there is no standard for it and each state have their own standard.

    For Higher Ed. institutions, the diploma epresents very limited value. For business, you get fired in the end if you aren’t able to perform.

    *Some of my thoughts are at:

  3. Nancy D says:

    No, I disagree Duncan. Some of the point is to grade students. It’s valuable for institutions of high learning and for employers to know how competent or incompetent a student is or was.

    Employers want to know if a student met the minimum requirements of the state graduation tests, as most of them know that the test measure only skills learned though the 10th grade in many cases, in other cases as low as 8th grade skills.

    Although the students who fail the exams are penalizes first, the schools these kids attend are also evaluated by how many students pass or fail. If the results didn’t matter for the kids, do you think they would even try?

  4. Nancy,
    I am not sure which point you really disagree. As you may know some of the state test is also very low in standard. To me, the best is that everyone take the SAT or ACT which is well designed and questions ranging from easy to difficult. Employers and Institutions can pick their cutting point.

    Of cause student care, the first question get asked when looking for job is did you graduated? But that can be just a perception. Without motivated from inside, even if them hold to the job it won’t help them in the long run.

    Yes, school and state will still feel the heat. But wouldn’t you agree that instead of focus on the last exam, its more valuable to emphasis on how to teaching it right in the first place.

  5. One problem I can see is that I believe the military still requires that you have a diploma (or GED) to graduate.

    Something tells me that if they went with the two-tiered system here, the people getting the lower tier probably couldn’t even get a GED…. but is the military expected to accept it?

  6. Duncan, if you can’t meet the requirements, you should not get a diploma.

    Joanne, the better question is whether it is fair to expect taxpayers to pay the salaries of teachers and school administrators who are so clueless that it takes a state-mandated test to find out if high school graduates can do tenth grade schoolwork. These kids who can’t pass the test probably have been lagging ever since kindergarten and dragging back the rest of the class. They should have been held back, given better teaching (if they would bother to try to learn), or diverted into other programs long before they entered high school.

  7. Jeff, if you have a two-tiered diploma system, all the lower tier will show is that you could show up in school often enough to be counted as a student and stay out of trouble bad enough to be expelled – except that it doesn’t even mean that if the brat gets the right psych. diagnosis. In the tiny high school in our town, there was a wheelchair-bound kid with serious mental problems besides, and not much happened to him even when he started a fire in the locker room. In a more liberal area, I wonder if a kid could get away with knifing a teacher provided he was diagnosed as sufficiently crazy first… (At the same time, normal and sane kids get into trouble for pointing a finger and saying “bang, bang”.)

  8. Andy Freeman says:

    > Evaluation should be done earlier in school and is used as a tool to help teacher helping students.

    Umm, evaluation should also be used to measure teacher effectiveness. If a teacher isn’t making a difference, why should we pay said teacher?

  9. In Texas, where we do require passing the state mandated test to get a diploma, we actually have 3 options at the end of high school:
    1. The Distinguished Achievement diploma – taking above and beyond the required courses to graduate (usually including courses that colleges like to see on your transcript)
    2. The standard diploma
    3. A certificate of completion for those who finish all of their coursework but do not pass the state test.

    There is no distinction made between #1 and #2 at the graduation ceremony – only on their official transcript. Those who end up at #3 do not get the privilege of walking the stage at graduation. They do, however, get as many chances as they want to take the test. Once they pass all four subject areas, their certificate of completion is changed to a diploma. I heard recently of one student who finally passed the older form of the test after 7 years of trying. Now that’s tenacity.

  10. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘The main question is does withholding high school diploma ‘

    How are you withholding something they haven’t earned?

  11. In the Oakland article, Oakland school board member Dan Siegel proposed the resolution to defy the state. Siegel and his supporters believe that inadequate funding and a lack of quality teachers puts Oakland students at a disadvantage for passing the exam. So I try to find how inadequate the funding is. I looked up http://www.ed-data.k12.ca.us/.

    Oakland’s per student expenditure for 2004-05 was $9299, this was higher the state average of $7523 for all school districts (the average of all unified school districts was roughly the same as the average of all school districts.) Books and supplies were not an issue since Oakland’s $666 was much higher than the state average of $382. Oakland’s teacher salary of $52913 was indeed much lower, reflecting lower teacher experience, but teacher salary per student was $4030 and higher than the state average of $3696. One reason was that they had more teachers, with a pupil teacher ratio of 18.5 vs state’s 21.2. Those who believe in smaller class size cannot really complaint.

    Dan Siegel needs a better excuse.

  12. So. Let’s see what are the common ground?

    It seems people does agree that high school diploma is a useful certificate and people here do think it’s important to distinguish the achievement levels.
    markm also raise a good question: What we should do with those lagging behind students.

    So. Here are more questions:

    Which state’s standard should we use? Are they all the same? Or do we care as long as the don’t move accross the state line?

    How should we handle those students that just move along – attending the class, don’t cause troubles and teachers just let them passing from one grade to the next and when they reach the point of graudating and can’t pass the test. What do you think those parents will say?? Or maybe we should just hold them at lower grades and never let them move up and eventually dropped out?