At long last, some California school districts have figured out how to keep the state’s two-year-old high school exit exam from driving up an already appalling dropout rate.
It’s an idea that was first advanced in this column just about the time the first exit exams were administered, alarming prospective graduates who feared they might not get diplomas: Give students who pass all needed classes and meet other graduation requirements a different kind of sheepskin, but at least give them something.
The fact that only a few districts so far have adopted this solution might help explain why the graduation rate among seniors has been growing smaller each year since the exit exam entered the picture. In 2005, only about 300,000 of the 423,000 seniors who began the school year got diplomas. That was a 71 percent graduation rate, as reported by the state Department of Education, which is often accused of inflating its numbers.
By June of 2006, only 279,000 out of 421,000 seniors actually graduated. The rate was probably worse this year, with specific numbers not yet reported. The state is thus admitting that more than one third of students who start each year as seniors will not graduate.
By contrast, less than 10 percent of seniors who took the exit exam failed to pass and were thus disqualified from graduation. How can this be?
The implication is that about one-fifth of all high school seniors become so discouraged by the mere prospect of the exam that they simply give up and flee from school. Add them to a dropout rate of about one-third of all students who enter high school each year, and you get a total dropout rate that might be as high as 45 percent over the four years of high school, even though no officials will admit the figure is so alarmingly high.
Those numbers show why it’s crucial to come up with new ways to keep kids in school, even those who are terrified of taking the exit exam. Such fears merely provide one more motivation for dropping out. Other reasons include motherhood, job income and, of course, gang activity and other crime.
One key tactic is to find a way of recognizing students who can’t quite pass the exit exam, but meet all other requirements.
Enter the alternative diploma, called a “certificate of completion” by some of the approximately 25 districts that have begun handing them out. These sheepskins allow those who get them to participate in commencement ceremonies and walk onstage to pick them up without humiliation because no one in the audience knows which document is handed to them.
There’s really nothing new about this concept. Colleges and universities for hundreds of years have recognized different levels of diplomas: Designations like magna cum laude and summa cum laude essentially say that some graduates have been more academically proficient than others, even though all grads have met the basic requirements.
Similarly, certificates of completion tell prospective employers that students have attended and passed enough classes to graduate, even if they couldn’t pass one test. Meanwhile, the full-fledged diplomas received by those who pass the exit exam tell employers the minimum skills and knowledge the graduates possess. Yes, there is differentiation, as there should be. But it’s differentiation without public humiliation in the form of being left out.
“Why would we deprive these students of the opportunity to walk with their classmates?” asked one official of the Tustin school district in Orange County.
Official numbers are not yet in, and even when they are, students who get certificates of completion won’t be counted among those who graduate, but the bet here is that districts which award the certificates will achieve lower dropout rates than those which don’t.
For there are plenty of teenagers who would rather not show up at all than suffer the consequences of failing an all-or-nothing exam. Instead of giving up on them or driving them away, why not recognize them for attending and passing plenty of classes? Why drive them away when they could be made welcome?
That’s only the first step, of course. The next is preparing all students well enough to pass the exam. But a lot of that step depends on students, their parents and other factors beyond the control of school officials. At least by offering differential graduation documents, some school officials will be saying they value all students who put forth the effort to attend their schools and pay sufficient attention to achieve passing grades.