The clash between the conflicting goals of excellence and inclusion reaches its climax with the awarding of diplomas. Academically talented students often cruise through high school, especially their senior year, earning good grades and a diploma almost effortlessly, falling far short of the degree of excellence they could attain with a full effort. Academically challenged students may put forth considerably more effort and still fail to meet stated standards and expectations.
Within our society there is a stigma attached to dropping out. As a result, students often face intense pressure to complete high school. Many teachers feel sorry for students with below-average abilities and pass them on the basis of “effort,” even if they have not mastered the objectives for a given grade or course. Some parents and students have come to regard a high school diploma as an entitlement. Schools and teachers often face intense pressure from parents to pass students along.
There should be requirements within any system that awards diplomas. The acquisition of a high school diploma should represent the attainment of a certain level of education. This is not the case under our present system. Graduates who have excelled are given the same certificate as students who perform at a much lower level. As part of our attempt to see that every student graduates from high school, the de facto standards for a diploma have been lowered. We have awarded high school diplomas to so many poorly educated individuals that earning a high school diploma has been rendered nearly meaningless. In response to this situation there has been a movement to raise standards. In reality, actually expecting all students to meet the standards that are already in place would represent “higher standards” for many students.
Anyone who professes to believe that we can simultaneously raise standards and lower the drop-out rate is either out of touch with reality or speaking rhetorically. When you raise standards, you increase the likelihood that students who are unwilling or unable to meet the higher standards will drop out. On the other hand, allowing students to move from grade to grade in elementary school, when they have not met the standards for that grade level, or to receive credit for classes in high school when they have not mastered the objectives related to that class, may decrease the drop-out rate, but represents a lowering of standards, even if the published standards remain high. Maintaining high standards can be effective and productive in cases where the higher standards motivate and challenge students who are capable of meeting that challenge. Raising standards is a cruel practice when it punishes students with below average ability for failing to achieve what is, for them, impossible.
The solution to this dilemma is to award various types of certificates and diplomas representing different levels of learning. A portfolio of each student’s work, demonstrating their level of mastery with regard to process standards should be evaluated by a panel of teachers. A standardized exit exam should provide an objective basis for assessing mastery of content standards. Various types of diplomas and certificates could then be awarded based on each student’s overall performance.
The “elementary” portion of a student’s education should culminate with the awarding of a “Basic Skills Certificate,” which would indicate the fact that the student had achieved the basic levels of literacy and numeracy necessary to function independently, as well as to succeed in high school. At the high school level we should allow students to work toward a diploma representing the completion of a program similar to the present curriculum, a program similar to the present one, but with fewer required subjects, or to earn a college preparatory diploma by completing a more rigorous course of study designed to meet the entrance requirements of colleges and universities. Students should also have the option, during the regular school day, of taking classes designed to help them pass the exam for a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) without taking any more classes than necessary to do so successfully. Students who attend classes regularly, but who are unable to meet the standards set for a diploma because of learning disabilities should be awarded a “certificate of completion.”
Many schools and school districts already offer some of these alternatives. If a student successfully completes a course of study that includes the courses recommended or required by most colleges, a stamp or seal is placed on their diploma or transcript certifying that they are adequately prepared for college. The G. E. D. is already an option for students who drop out of regular high school programs. By offering different types of diplomas representing different levels of achievement we could legitimize and maintain the value of each type of diploma, while offering students a much broader range of meaningful choices with regard to formal education. Under such a system, students of varying abilities would all be motivated to put forth their “best effort.