May 20, 2006

Diplomas Matter?

Earning a high school diploma is a great achievement. It’s one of the challenges that most Americans share and that unite us as a community. From kindergarten to senior year we follow a structured schedule of demanding courses that do more than simply teach us to read, write and add. The diploma at the end of the journey represents a lifetime of accomplishment earned through a rigorous and common course of study and reflects a mature level of preparation for adult life.

There seems to be a philosophical battle between those who recognize the personal and social importance of receiving a high school diploma, and those who understand the intellectual and academic impact of earning a high school diploma. It feels like the personal and social group is winning the war when employers continue to complain about the inadequate job public schools do preparing the work force. It seems like every year we hear about more and more public schools that graduate or promote students into the world without teaching them to read, write and add at the most basic level.

However, California schools today are more focused than ever on rigorous standards and common assessments to make sure that the students do meet at least the most basic levels of proficiency. The current push in California is for all high school students to meet the A-G requirements as determined by the University of California whether or not they plan on attending college. There is additional pressure being applied by California Career Technical Education to teach more vocational education courses that incorporate the standards and better prepare students for the job market. And yet there remains a population of students who either fail to graduate, or instead receive their diplomas without mastering basic skills.

In an effort to ensure the high school diploma maintains its relevance, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) was recently mandated by the California Department of Education as a requirement for graduation. The CAHSEE is intended to prevent students in California from receiving a high school diploma without first proving that they can indeed read, write and add as assessed on a standardized exit exam.

Last week an Alameda County superior court judge issued an injunction that may remove the requirement for the class of 2006. In an article from the Redlands Daily Facts posted on May 14, 2006, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said, “The preliminary injunction against California's exit exam denies the vast majority of students in the Class of 2006 the opportunity to graduate with diplomas that certify mastery of essential skills in reading and math, and it's bad news for California students who have worked hard to pass the exit exam."

If diplomas don’t, “certify mastery of essential skills in reading and math,” then what do they certify? Is the high school diploma losing its value? Why isn’t the course work completed over 13 years of study adequately preparing some students at even the most basic level? The CAHSEE graduation requirement promotes it to significance almost equal to the catalog of course work required of students to earn their diploma. The effect is huge. Students still have to earn a predetermined number of credits in a variety of subject areas to graduate, but without the CAHSEE, their course work is insufficient to earn them a diploma.

In recent years, California high schools have focused major class time and resources to preparing all students to pass the CAHSEE test. If a student fails the CAHSEE on their first attempt as a sophomore, their elective course choices in some high schools are restricted to review courses designed to help them pass. Students who fail the CAHSEE on subsequent attempts are put at the front of the scholastic line and given even more resources to help them attain the skills needed to pass the test, and ultimately receive a diploma.

O’Connell also stated, "we do no favors to students who have not mastered basic skills by handing them a diploma," he said. "We can better serve those students by helping them to complete their education. I look forward to appealing the case so that, at the end of the legal day, the exit exam will stand as an important measure of accountability in California schools."

How is it possible that students who “have not mastered basic skills” can still receive a diploma? How large are the cracks and how deep are the chasms these students are falling into? So long as social promotion continues to be a normal and acceptable practice, and students continue to move between districts and campuses without a strong support mechanism to ensure an appropriate transfer and placement, kids will continue to fall behind. Add to that the large immigrant population in California pouring students into the system late in their academic careers and it’s not hard to see why some kids struggle to master basic skills despite our best educational efforts.

Accountability in California schools is crucially important. Measuring accountability by a single standardized exit exam that all students must pass in order to receive a diploma may not be as crucial. The problem is the “all” part of the statement. Of course we need a measurement by which “all” students can be assessed. But isn’t that what their course work already measures? How do we design a single test that equally assess a student who was born and raised in California and spent 13 years in the education system the same way it assesses a student who has just moved here from the Philippines and is just learning English?

Diplomas matter. They are a significant and consequential document, not just a simple symbol of mastery of the most basic skills. This year at graduation when we watch our students walk through the gateway of destiny and out into the world armed with their diplomas we should be confident that they are more than adequately prepared for whatever new challenges await them.
5-25-2006 UPDATE

EXIT EXAM REINSTATED Today, the Supreme Court of California issued a stay in the case of Valenzuela v. O’Connell, regarding the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE). The stay reinstates the requirement that public school students pass the CAHSEE in order to graduate from high school.

Please post your comments below.


  1. Why does the State/Feds/Business World feel they need this test if our students have met all other requirements? I assume because our grades are not standards based, but fairly subjective. For example, there are differences in how each teacher grades, the criteria they use etc. There have not been common grading practices. We have not agreed upon a common level of performance. In fact we do not grade solely on performance, but use other factors as well. Some are great factors and some, like effort, are limited. Effort is awesom. We could use more. But effort and real achievement do not equate. Bottom line is that historically a few kids have been graduating without being able to read, write and do math to a level they can survive out there. Remember the level of these abilities is much higher now than it has been due to the nature of the employment market. Most of the manual labor where literacy is not an issue are now overseas. Heck much of the skilled market labor is overseas as well.

  2. I am a 55-year-old high school social studies teacher from Minnesota. I say that because I'm finding that our different perspectives cause a lot of our disagreements. First of all, I'm tired of hearing about employers complaining that we aren't adequately preparing people for the workforce. We've been hearing that since before "Nation at Risk" was published in 1983. That's 23 years ago! If we've been doing this miserable job of preparing people for the workforce for 25, 30, or even 35 years, how does our economy manage to keep humming along? Why do I keep hearing that our military is the best educated and the best trained in the world?

    I have a slight disagreement with Anonymous. I don't think anyone who's read my posts or comments would say I'm a bleeding heart, but I believe that every student who makes an honest effort should be able to be successful in school. If he or she isn't successful, then I think we've got to do one of two things: we've got to take a look at changing what we're doing in the classes in which that student can't succeed, or we need to develop different classes and programs so that student can be successful. (I'm in favor of "basic" classes, but that's an issue by itself.) I want to emphasize that I'm talking about students who really try. If they don't make an effort, I've got no sympathy for them.

    Since I'm from Minnesota, anything I say about what California is doing has to be taken with a grain of salt, but once again, I think it boils down to effort. It sounds like California is working hard to prepare those kids so they can make it through those tests, but if kids are really trying and not making it, then I think the system is flawed. On the other hand, if kids aren't passing because they're making a poor effort--too bad!

  3. You already know the answer to the question when you ask "Do diplomas mean anything?" I just don't think you like the answer.

    We know why diplomas are meaningless today. Our entitlement culture, combined with a change in teacher attitudes from the 70s to now (more touchy-feely, more counselor-y), won't let anyone fail.

    It used to be expected that students would do their work and learn the material. Of course, it also used to be expected that teachers taught some material to be learned. If California's teachers are teaching to the standards (and in many cases that's a big *if*), the students need to do their part.

    And any senior (absent major learning difficulties) who can't pass an at-most-10th-grade English test with 60% and an at-most-8th-grade-Algebra-I math test at 55% hasn't put forth enough effort in school to earn a diploma.