If states treat diplomas as nothing more than certificates of attendance, employers will treat them that way, too.
Critics of high school exit exams argue that they hurt minority students by denying many of them the high school diplomas they need to get jobs. But federal data suggest that having a diploma doesn’t help in getting a job if it doesn’t indicate the possession of basic academic skills. If states want minority students to be able to get jobs, they should implement high school exit exams.
It is well known that for many students, and particularly for minority students, earning a high school diploma does not mean achieving even basic academic proficiency. Among 12th graders, 42 percent of Hispanic students and 49 percent of black students cannot read at the “basic” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with only 21 percent of white students. On the math test, 58 percent of Hispanic seniors and an alarming 70 percent of black seniors perform below the basic level, compared with 27 percent of white seniors.
What is less well known is that employers are catching on to this hard reality. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the unemployment rate for recent Hispanic high school completers was 31.5 percent in 2001, only 1.1 percentage points higher than the 32.6 percent unemployment rate for recent Hispanic high school dropouts. Unfortunately, unemployment statistics aren’t available for recent black high school dropouts because they are so abysmally educated that too many of them drop out of the labor force entirely.
These data show that Hispanics who completed high school were not significantly more likely to find a job than those who dropped out. In the same year, white students who completed high school were 15.3 percentage points more likely to be employed than white dropouts.
Employer racism cannot explain these data. Racism by employers could cause the total Hispanic unemployment rate to be higher than the white unemployment rate. However, it cannot explain why there is no difference in employment rates between Hispanics who complete high school and Hispanics who do not.
If completing high school doesn't help a Hispanic student get a job, the only plausible explanation is that employers don't believe a diploma conveys useful information about the skill level of Hispanic youths.
If completing high school doesn’t help a Hispanic student get a job, the only plausible explanation is that employers don’t believe a diploma conveys useful information about the skill level of Hispanic youths. A high school diploma should signal to employers that a person has acquired basic skills. For white high school graduates, diplomas are sending this signal clearly; for Hispanics, the signal seems to be breaking up.
High-stakes testing has emerged as a promising solution to this problem. It focuses on the heart of the issue: assuring that a high school diploma indicates real educational achievement. Several states now ensure that everyone who leaves high school with a diploma has obtained the necessary basic skills by requiring students to pass exit exams. This should increase the job-market value of earning a diploma in these states.
Some argue against exit exams because they feel it is too harsh to deny a diploma to any student who has made it all the way through high school and passed the right number of courses. But the employment data for Hispanics show that if the state treats diplomas as nothing more than certificates of attendance, employers will treat them that way, too.
A diploma is not a magical document that conveys skills upon anyone who receives it. Real life is not like “The Wizard of Oz,” where the Scarecrow instantly becomes smarter the moment he receives his diploma.
For too long, students have been able to graduate from our nation’s schools without gaining the skills necessary to make it in the workforce. When we give diplomas to those who have not earned them, we only decrease employers’ ability to distinguish between those who really have basic skills and those who do not. This is harmful to those who do possess such skills, because they don’t get credit for their accomplishments, and also to the students who were simply passed along from grade to grade, without ever being taught such skills.
The available evidence suggests that this is having serious consequences for Hispanic students. It is certainly possible that if we don’t remain committed to reform, we can expect the problem to get worse.
Marcus A. Winters is a research associate and Greg Forster is a senior research associate at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, in New York City.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Meaningless Diplomas Hurt Hispanic Students