College & Workforce Readiness

Three-Tier Diplomas Ignite Delaware Spat

By Michelle R. Davis — April 28, 2004 3 min read
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This year’s Delaware high school seniors could be the first class in the state to receive diplomas ranking graduates in three categories, though some state lawmakers are working to put a hold on the plan.

Some parents and legislators are battling the three-tier diploma system, which was adopted in 2000 as part of new state accountability measures. They say it’s unfair and arbitrary. But Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, is pushing to leave the new diploma system in place.

A measure to put a two-year moratorium on the plan was passed April 6 by the Delaware House, and has been sent to the Senate Executive Committee, where it remains unclear whether it will progress.

The three types of diplomas students can get through the new system are “basic,” “standard,” and “distinguished.” If the plan is carried out, the type of diploma a student gets at graduation will be based solely on results from the standardized state test administered in 10th grade, which rates reading, writing, and math skills.

Delaware Secretary of Education Valerie A. Woodruff said she believes her state is the only one in the country with such a diploma system in place.

Yvonne Johnson, a co-chairwoman of Advocates for Children’s Education, a grassroots group of Delaware parents based in Wilmington, said some students who have high grade point averages and have worked hard in school are getting the lowest level of diploma because of their performance on one test.

“You take the test in 10th grade to determine what type of diploma you’re getting in 12th,” said Ms. Johnson, whose son, a senior will receive a basic diploma. “It’s ridiculous.”

This year, 51 percent of the state’s high school graduates are slated to receive the basic diploma, 40 percent the standard diploma, and eight percent the distinguished diploma, according to state department of education projections.

Ms. Woodruff said straight-A students taking advanced courses should do well on the state exams and thus earn the higher-grade diploma. If that’s not happening, “I question whether the district curriculum is aligned to the standards,” she said.

And though some parents are complaining about the three-tiered diplomas, others are pressing to keep the system, she said. “I’ve heard from parents who’ve said, ‘Don’t you dare trash the system. My child took the test several times and by golly I want my kid to get what they worked for,’” she said.

Change of Heart

Though the Delaware legislature is considering the two-year moratorium, Gov. Minner is opposed to putting the diploma system on hold, said her spokesman, Gregory B. Patterson.

Instead, the governor has announced she will form two task forces—one to study the Delaware Student Testing Program, which administers the test students take in 10th grade, and another to study the three-tier diploma system itself.

“She very much feels that the state is on the right track,” Mr. Patterson said. “We have accountability for schools, we will have accountability for teachers, and the goal all along has been to have accountability for students.”

Rep. Bruce C. Reynolds, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, originally voted for the three-tier system as an alternative to exit exams. Now he favors the moratorium so the governor’s task force can do its work. “I’ve never been comfortable with one test determining this,” he said.

He also worries that because the results of the test come so early in a student’s career, the testing program could send some students off track. “It’s hard to inspire and motivate students,” he said, “when they’ve been branded as failures.”

Students can retake the test up to five times and into their senior year to improve their scores.

Though the Delaware State Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, doesn’t have an official position on the diploma system, it does oppose the idea of using one test to determine a student’s diploma, said spokeswoman Pamela T. Nichols. “We don’t like the notion that something so important is based on one test,” she added.

Some parents who oppose the three-tier system said they plan to use the issue in an effort to defeat Gov. Minner in her bid to win re-election next fall.

“I hope the governor realizes,” Ms. Johnson said, “that if she doesn’t support the moratorium, it could cost her the election.”

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