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Issuing Retroactive Diplomas is Not Charity
In Education Week last month I read an article about six states, including Georgia, Texas, and California, that are issuing retroactive high school diplomas to students who did not pass the required exit exams over the past several years. The numbers quoted in the article show that tens of thousands of former students have already received diplomas and many more are awaiting confirmation of their eligibility. Some of the states justify their actions by explaining that the exit exams for high school graduation that were mandatory over the past 20 years or more have now been replaced by end-of-course tests which more fairly and comprehensively measure students’ knowledge and skills in various academic areas. Looking back, school officials see many weaknesses in those exams that made them unreliable. What they also recognize, belatedly, are the crippling effects that a lack of a high school diploma has on the futures of young people. Countless numbers of intelligent and hard working individuals have found it impossible to enroll in college or get a decent job without that credential. They wind up being considered as undesirable as those who have a criminal record.
As might be expected, the distribution of retroactive diplomas has generated a flurry of objections in many quarters. In the eyes of some politicians, business leaders, and ordinary citizens the people receiving them are irresponsible, incompetent slackers who do not deserve special consideration. Moreover, their late diplomas devalue the ones received by the students who did pass the exams.
Despite the objections and the weak reasoning described in the article, I consider the issuing of late diplomas good news– but for reasons that were not mentioned. Over the past several years many school conditions have adversely affected students who otherwise would have graduated and gone on to more education, specialized training, or good paying jobs. Adverse conditions, such as age-inappropriate standards and too much testing still exist.
But the major problem in our schools today is the refusal to recognize that children mature at different rates and with different skills and interests. Our policy makers completely ignore the fact that many students are still immature at age 17 or 18, often acting foolishly in and out of school, but more importantly, unable to demonstrate their strong potential in various areas.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of successful late maturation is what happened after World War 2 when military veterans were given free college tuition and most of them succeeded in their studies and subsequent jobs. In their 20s or 30s, they were able to do the studying and write the papers they would have been unsuccessful with in previous years.
Through my own experience as a teacher, a principal, and a mother of four children, I have come to understand that the rate and range of human development vary widely. For many young people more years and world experiences are needed to bring out their full potential. It is not only kind but also wise for schools at all levels to remove the barriers to success and allow students to demonstrate their skills and learning power under circumstances for which they are ready.