Giving diplomas to those who didn't earn them only harms those who did

If you are a student here at the UA, odds are you have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Congratulations!

Though education is diversifying and the process may be slightly different across various high schools, for the majority of us, graduating meant attaining a minimum number of credits, maintaining a passing GPA and, finally, donning a cap and gown to receive a paper that validated our past 12 years of education.

For decades, being a high school graduate pretty much meant one thing: checking off all of the above boxes. New legislatures in numerous states are working to change that.

If you grew up in Arizona, you may fondly remember the eighth-grade through 12th-grade Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards exams. The tests were tedious and bothersome, but required for graduation.

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Last year, Arizona rescinded its AIMS exit exam requirement. Countless other states are changing or revoking their exit exams too. In 2012, half of all states had state-specific high school exit exams like Arizona's AIMS. Now, that number is 13, and it continues to drop.

Furthermore, since withdrawing exit exam requirements, at least six states have begun to issue retroactive diplomas. In these states, a school district can now issue a retroactive diploma to any student who failed his or her state exit exams at a time when a passing score was still required to graduate.

Such a protocol awards diplomas to students who just missed the mark — some of them who would have graduated up to two decades ago. Tens of thousands of students across the U.S. —with no extra work required— now qualify for these retroactive diplomas. Thousands of would-be-graduates, including alumni from many Arizona school districts, have seized the opportunity to finally acquire a high school degree.

Of course a high school education should be available to everyone. But diplomas should be reserved for those students who met certain standards during their education. Anyone who has received a retroactive diploma may feel like they’ve won the lottery, but in reality, have they really received anything more than a piece of paper?

High school graduation requirements exist for a reason; they ensure that every student who earns a diploma has the minimum skills necessary to enter college or the workforce. Sure, exams are never perfect and often fail to indicate a student’s full potential. Then again, that’s life; we live in a system that expects certain standards to be maintained.

Anyone who wants a job will at some point be asked to complete a task not perfectly aligned with his or her skill set. Americans need to prepare for those scenarios and adjust accordingly, as would a high schooler preparing for a daunting — yet important — exit exam.

Many worry that, as the meaning of graduation changes, diplomas will ultimately be stripped of their value.

“It's a very misguided policy. All you have to do is have an IQ above room temperature and you've got a diploma," said Bill Hammond, chief executive officer of the Texas Association of Business, in an interview with Education Week. "What about all those students who worked hard, who tried multiple times to pass? Now their diplomas are worth nothing, the same as those who were given a free pass."

While harsh, Hammond’s words ring true. If a diploma truly represents a set of qualifications, then a person issued a retroactive diploma isn’t really given a free pass at all. They still lack the knowledge deemed necessary for being a productive, valuable member of the workforce.

It’s no secret that the U.S. education system is faltering. National test scores continue to drop, and frankly, we perform embarrassingly when compared to other countries. The last thing we need is to further devalue our diplomas.


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