If ever there was a time for public school districts around the state to face up to the need for differential diplomas, this is it.
No one knows just yet how many of this year’s high school seniors have failed the exit exam that’s been a graduation requirement for the last four years.
But one thing seems certain: the failure rate will be much higher than last year’s nine percent. Even then, more than 41,000 seniors who met every other graduation requirement did not get diplomas. This was a major improvement over previous years. When the test was first given in 2002, about 52 percent of all students who took it failed either the math or English portion on their first attempt. But by early 2007, more than 80 percent were passing on the first try.
So why should there be more failures this year? Because a two-year exemption for special education students is about to end, unless state legislators pass an urgency bill letting them get diplomas and it is okayed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Even though more and more students pass on the first try each year, the rate is sure to drop once special ed students are included. That’s because many of them have learning disabilities, mental health difficulties, birth defects, and other behavioral problems. Some estimates now indicate as many as 40,000 special ed students will fail to graduate this year because of the exam, just about doubling the overall number of non-graduating seniors. This is likely even though special ed students get more time to take the test and can use calculators where others may not.
The obvious question: If, as seems likely, a high percentage of special ed students also would have failed the exam last year had they been forced to take it, how come their diplomas were the same as those of the kids who passed? What do those diplomas really mean?
The answer, of course, is that diplomas won at great pain by students who passed all required coursework, took regular exams all through high school, and also passed the exit exam are cheapened by the fact that others who did not have to pass got identical sheepskins.
At the same time, today’s system is unfair to students who meet all other requirements, but might be test-phobic or learning disabled and fall down on pass-or-else exams. They become like pariahs, standing aside or outside while their classmates of the previous four years walk across the stage to get diplomas.
The suggestion here is not to get rid of the exit exam. In a state where grade inflation has been rampant for decades and some high school graduates barely speak or read English, the exit exam is one barometer of basic skills. Potential employers know that anyone with a recent diploma has certain skills.
But what about the kids who don’t pass, but meet all other requirements. Yes, some of them will keep taking the exam until they finally do pass. But others who fail in their first and second attempts long before Graduation Day will simply drop out, figuring there’s no point continuing in school if they’re never going to graduate.
Most of them are long gone before senior year, thus inflating the apparent senior class passage percentages and making teachers and administrators look better. But those kids are lost to education, and most will hold unskilled jobs the rest of their lives. Not a nice fate to contemplate, even if pumping gas or slinging hash gives them a little more cash while their former classmates are still in school.
The answer for all these problems – dropouts, special education students, the test phobic – is a differential diploma. For centuries, every college and university has offered these. They bear high-fallutin’ names like magna cum laude and summa cum laude, and they mean that the students who won them know more or have demonstrated more skills and abilities than their classmates who didn’t get those honors.
Differential diplomas would give every student who completes the normal graduation requirements a chance to walk across a commencement stage and win applause and recognition. They would give special ed graduates the same boost they’ve previously gotten for struggling through school. And because all students would know they can get some kind of diploma even without passing the exit exam, dropout rates would most likely ease off.
This is the clear-cut way out, one that humiliates no one, gives recognition to students who pass the exam, and allows employers to know what to expect from various types of job applicants.
A few school districts have already seen the light and begun awarding differential diplomas. Now it’s high time for the Legislature to mandate the practice statewide – before next month’s graduations, if at all possible.