High School Diplomas - Is One Enough?

I wrote a story for today's paper about two students from my Algebra II class who are pursuing different high school diplomas. Nila Fasihi studies cosmetology part-time in a career academy and is pursuing a standard diploma. Her classmate Simon Lhuillier is taking honors classes and hoping to get into one of Virginia's competitive four-year universities. He's pursuing a more rigorous advanced diploma.

Traditional tracking into vocational or academic programs is breaking down in many ways. But Virginia's policy of offering different diplomas remains controversial at a time when the emphasis nationally is on raising academic standards for all students.

The standard diploma has been the sticking point. It requires less science, less math, less social studies, and no foreign language. Students who graduate with these minimum requirements are likely to still need remediation in community college.

When educators allow for a range of expectations, it is too often poor and minority students who end up taking the lowest-level classes, civil rights advocates say. Indeed, the state's numbers show that poor students are twice as likely to get the standard diploma.

But Virginia's Board of Education recently took steps to raise the basic requirements for a standard diploma. Currently, students can spend two years taking Algebra 1, rather than one year, and they can earn two credits for the course. Ditto chemistry and geometry. That means they only need to take one more math or science courses overall to earn the three credits they need to graduate.

The Board voted in May to allow students to earn one credit -- and only one credit -- for those courses beginning in 2010. So students will end up going farther in math and science overall. For many students, that will get them closer to college, with an advanced algebra class and more science under their belts.

And what do you readers think? Does it make more sense to set the same requirements for everyone or to acknowledge different ability levels and interests with different diplomas?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  June 18, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Previous: Aspiring Elementary Teachers Fail New Math Test | Next: School's Out for the Summer


Michael, how do the schools work a two year Algebra 1 course? Do they let them repeat it without penalty, or is there actually a dedicated class that goes through the first half of the material one year, and the second half of the material the second year?

The issue of separate diplomas doesn't seem to be a big deal to me. The state sets minimum standards, and that's what's required to get the basic diploma. If a student goes beyond those minimum standards and you want to reward him or her for it with different words on a sheet of paper, I don't see why that's a problem. It seems like basically the same thing as tacking "honors" onto a college degree for maintaining a certain GPA.

If you have a problem with low standards for the basic diploma, address that, but that's got nothing to do with rewarding students for extra effort. And it seems like colleges are going to look at the actual classes you took and the grades you got in them, not what kind of diploma you got.

Posted by: tomsing | June 18, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

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