College & Workforce Readiness

States Ponder New Forms of Diploma

By Lynn Olson — June 21, 2000 9 min read
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When Albert L. Mion III received his diploma last week, he also earned a special designation on his high school transcript: a “certificate of mastery” recognizing that he had passed all four sections of Connecticut’s 10th grade achievement test with flying colors.

About 40 of the 511 seniors in his graduating class at Danbury High School earned the distinction as sophomores—a proportion that Connecticut officials hope will climb at schools statewide in the coming years. “I put importance on it,” said the 17-year-old, who is headed to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., in the fall. “It’s a good accomplishment.”

Nationwide, states are trying to raise standards and motivate students like Mr. Mion to take their schooling seriously, and many of those efforts are beginning to show up this spring on the diplomas and transcripts of the class of 2000.

More than half the states now require students to pass state tests to graduate, or plan to do so in the future. New York, for example, is phasing out a system of local diplomas and requiring all students to pass the more difficult state regents’ exams, which were once taken primarily by the college-bound. Others, like Connecticut, provide special recognition to students who do well on their exams, or stipends and scholarships for college. A few—such as Delaware—offer several levels of diploma based in part on students’ performance on state tests or plan to do so.

In part, states are trying to reassure employers, colleges, and the public that the high school diploma actually means something.

But states often find themselves in a quandary: How do they provide incentives for students at all points on the academic spectrum—from high achievers who see high school exit tests as largely irrelevant to their college plans to those who are struggling to meet the higher standards?

Such concerns are especially important in the phase-in years of the new requirements. How can states be fair to low-performing students, who may not have been exposed to the tougher standards since kindergarten?

The issue is particularly serious when it comes to denying students a high school diploma, which most Americans consider the minimal ticket to success.

“The right thing to do is to get as quickly as possible to a diploma that actually means something, and that means ready for college,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which works to raise academic achievement for all students. “Now, how fast you can get to that, and what those standards really are, is easier said than done.”

Need for Varied Incentives

At a meeting sponsored last month by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, several economists urged states to consider “differentiated” credentials to increase motivation across the entire range of students and provide better signals to employers about the skills of high school graduates.

John H. Bishop, a professor of economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., argued that such incentives as including test scores on transcripts, and requiring minimum-competency tests and externally developed end-of-course exams can help raise motivation and achievement.

His research suggests that minimum- competency tests may decrease the likelihood that some low-performing students will receive a diploma in six years. But, he added, such a requirement also increases the chances that less able students who do graduate will attend college and earn more in the marketplace.

“The more different levels of these things the better,” Mr. Bishop said.

“The key is to get the incentives as close to right as possible,” said Robert M. Costrell, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “It’s not a surprise, nor is it necessarily a bad thing, that you’re seeing so much variation across the states,” he added. “It’s going to take a lot of trial and error until this is sorted out.”

States should offer additional incentives for high achievers, he argued, but they should also have options for low achievers so that dropping out of school isn’t their only alternative to receiving a diploma.

Toward that end, Mr. Costrell has proposed a credential that would recognize certain noncognitive skills, such as good attendance and the discipline to stay in school, that are also valued by employers. “Whether they should all be called diplomas or not,” he said, “is another matter.”

Many states have already taken steps to give lower- performing students a reason to stay in school. According to the National Center for Educational Outcomes, based at the University of Minnesota, more than half the states now offer a certificate of attendance in addition to a standard diploma. Nearly half offer special diplomas for some students with disabilities.

‘Something Positive’

Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, believes such additional options are necessary.

“In New York, we have been completely supportive of requiring all kids to get the regents’ diploma,” she said, “and we continue to be very supportive of raising the standards.” But, she added, “speaking for myself, we have to start thinking about some differentiated diploma requirements to be fair to kids.”

“It has to be done in a way that doesn’t create a diploma that’s meaningless,” Ms. Feldman continued, “but you have an economy where there’s a lot of technical work that doesn’t require a college education.”

Despite some concern that one diploma may not be enough, how many different diplomas or certificates states should offer—and what they should call them—is far from clear.

The South Carolina legislature recently repealed the STAR diploma, which was provided to students for exemplary academic performance, because “it led to a great deal of confusion,” said Frederick E. Grieb, an associate in the state education department.

Many school districts in the state, he noted, provide their own academic-incentive diplomas. “So we had instances where some graduates were receiving a local incentive diploma, a STAR diploma, a state academic-honors award,” and a college scholarship for high achievers, Mr. Grieb said. “And we kidded about the fact that instead of having diploma covers, we needed to have albums.”

Rewarding Success

According to the AFT, 23 states have or are devising advanced diplomas or other incentives for students who exceed state standards—up from eight in 1996.

Starting with the class of 2003, Pennsylvania will provide seals of “proficiency” or “distinction” to students based on scores on state tests taken in the junior year.

In Massachusetts, 4,700 seniors who scored well on the state assessments were invited to apply for a “certificate of mastery” this spring that recognizes superior academic achievement. The state is also working on “certificates of occupational proficiency” for career and technical students who pass the state exams and meet standards for performance in their fields.

At least eight states provide even more tangible rewards to high achievers, the AFT figures show, such as guarantees of college admission, tuition aid, or stipends. In Massachusetts, the state board of higher education will vote this month on whether to provide a four-year scholarship to any public higher education institution in the state to students who qualify for the certificate of mastery. Legislators are also considering a $500 stipend for every award winner.

In Illinois, a student committee has suggested providing those who score well on state tests with reduced fees for automobile insurance.

Far more controversial is whether to provide some kind of diploma or credential for students who cannot pass state tests. In Virginia, the state school board will vote next month on whether to provide a basic diploma for students who cannot pass the state’s demanding Standards of Learning exams.

“States want to put in these high stakes, and then they find there’s a backlash—kids aren’t performing, or they aren’t meeting these standards in enough time. So they have to put in these alternatives,” said Heidi Glidden, an associate in the educational issues department at the AFT.

“As a phase-in, to offer a separate diploma is fine,” she added. “You would hope and assume, now that you do have all these kids who are exposed to standards from the beginning, that as you move through this pipeline such a diploma wouldn’t be used anymore.”

Delaware lawmakers recently approved three levels of diploma— “standard,” “academic,” and “distinguished.” But the Business Public Education Council, which represents more than 30 of the state’s major corporations, opposes the idea of offering “standard” diplomas to students who haven’t passed state tests.

“From a business standpoint,” said Paul R. Fine, the organization’s executive director, “we believe a diploma that just acknowledges seat time is a diploma which goes nowhere.”

He also worries that if students are allowed to pass through the system understanding that they will receive a diploma even if they fail the exams, “it defeats the whole purpose of what the reform is all about.”

Differentiated Diplomas

In Massachusetts, the question of what credential to offer students who don’t pass the state tests is up for grabs. Francis J. Kane, the associate commissioner for career and technical education, said the state’s current position is that districts can choose to give students who don’t pass the exams a certificate of attendance, as long as they have met other requirements.

But, he said, some districts would prefer to give a diploma. “That hasn’t actually been resolved yet,” he said.

John C. Rennie and S. Paul Reville, the chairman and vice chairman of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, have recommended several levels of state-sanctioned diplomas, from “basic” to “highest honors.” The basic diploma would require passing scores on the state’s English and mathematics tests and, as other tests are phased in, a failing grade on no more than one other Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.

But in the first few years of high-stakes testing, they acknowledge, some schools and districts may have substantial numbers of students who fail even those basic criteria.

During the transition, they argue, districts should be able to graduate such students with a local diploma, as long as they meet local graduation requirements.

“This provision, though distasteful,” they write in the Winter 2000 issue of the Boston- based CommonWealth magazine, “is suggested only to prevent the chaotic situation of larger numbers of students getting turned back into grade 12 than the school system can handle.”

Meanwhile, whether employers or colleges will pay attention to differentiated diplomas, test scores on transcripts, or other signals of academic accomplishment is far from clear.

“What we need to make sure is that somebody looks at this stuff,” said Bob Palaich, the division director of K-16 policy at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “If prospective employers and colleges don’t care, then it’s just a set of hurdles we’ve put up in front of kids and families. The businesses and colleges and universities all need to be looking at these endorsements.”

Students like Albert Mion of Danbury, Conn., are aware of that uncertainty as well. While he is proud of his test scores and his “certificate of mastery,” whether they have any value outside his school, Mr. Mion admits, “is a really ambiguous case.”

“The admissions office down at the college where I’ve been accepted [in Florida], didn’t say anything about the results,” he said, “so I honestly can’t say whether it counts for anything.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as States Ponder New Forms of Diploma


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