High School Graduation Circa 2015

For the record, I am a big fan of alternative education programs. I’m opposed to the thrust and consequences of both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, especially their emphases on extensive standardized testing and connecting teacher assessments to student test scores. The Montessorian in me fully recognizes that all students learn differently, that there are many paths to success, and that there are multiple measures of knowledge. I want to see students encouraged to develop individual strengths and not penalized by failure on narrow, inappropriate skill assessments.

But are there limits here, folks? Are there NO bottom thresholds for skills attainments? In our very American drive to be individualistic, can we still educate the next generation of citizens?

imgresTake High School and the US High School Diploma: everyone wants one. Without this piece of paper, nearly every college is off limits. So are nearly all jobs with opportunities for advancement or a living wage. It is considered THE most basic calling card of some measure of educational attainment in America. So if you are an employer or a college, and someone says they have a High School Diploma, you make some assumptions about skills. Something comes to mind, right? This term has some meaning. So, exactly, what skills does it guarantee?

Apparently a lot fewer than I thought. In fact, the term is rapidly becoming the latest example of Orwellian newspeak. I learned this through my good friends at NPR and a little additional digging.


For example, did you know that 21 states have multiple alternative High School graduation paths, all with different requirements, but all of which are still “High School Diplomas” of some sort? Florida had five different options: you can go for three years or four years, be college ready or career ready, you name it. New York has nine options. North Carolina has six. Wyoming: five. Texas has – catch this – eleven possible diplomas, though, to be fair, three are being phased out. Whew.

And if a student comes with just too many obstacles – poverty, no English, a challenging home life, poor teachers, significant learning disabilities – and is unsuccessful with all of these diploma options? Which means, just so we remember, that their functional skills are simply too inadequate to pass what are usually very low state minimums. What then?

No problem. There are alternative credit programs and an appeals process. In many states, students desperate for a HS diploma, but without the skills to pass either their required courses or a state minimum assessment exam, can take a range of alternative paths and pursue an appeal. The unfortunate cake-taker in this race to the bottom seems to be Camden, a poor New Jersey school district. In 2010, fully half the senior class could not pass either the state mandatory graduation exam or the easier, untimed, alternative graduation exam. (The alternative graduation exam has just one question in each subject matter; the math goes through Algebra I only.) Never fear, there is an appeals process, which consists of showing work – a single math problem done in class, say, or a writing sample with teacher comments. Last year, 1,400 New Jersey students graduated through the appeals process and not a single student appealing has yet been denied.

Hhhmmm. Well, I’m thrilled they are now graduates. I guess. Sorta. But really, is this a joke? Why are we determined to make a mockery not only of the meaning of a “High School Diploma” but of these students as well, misleading them into thinking they are now ready for college or for jobs expected math and language skills befitting, well, a High School graduate? How is this helping?

I am reminded of some of the students I tutored in poor areas of India, students who would be passed up from year to year. The gap between their actual skills and the expectations of the grade they were in widened from a trickle to a stream to the flood of the Amazon. I cringed to think of how painful and boring it must be for students who could barely answer a question like “What is your name?” in English, but were sitting, day after day, in a class analyzing an obscure Mark Twain text filled with historical allusions or a densely footnoted history lesson about the British Empire.

So somewhere in the vast ocean of attention and assessment and argument about school standards, and the gargantuan sums spent on technology and on the rapacious folks at Pearson et al., we are still failing to provide way too many students with the bare minimum skills necessary for successful adulthood in the 21st Century. Now that is ridiculous.


  • A no-exceptions graduation assessment in each state requiring a demonstration of minimum skills. Sorry. A diploma shows you’ve attained some level of proficiency. It can be basic, I get it. This is still only High School. But proficiency at some level is still proficiency. No mastery, no diploma.
  • An alternate credential for students whose effort and attempts demonstrate diligence and high work habits but whose skill levels make it impossible for them to demonstrate minimum proficiency. (Note: this skills deficiency often accompanies English Language Learners, so perhaps some of that money just freed up from the tech moratorium could be spent on language tutors?)

Check out the series yourself here, or see how your own state is doing here.