Not earning a diploma is a big deal

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire.

It may not seem like a big deal if less than 5 percent of Juneau-Douglas High School seniors don't pass the state-required graduation test in order to earn a high school diploma, but actually it is because of the implications for those who don't pass and for local work force development.

Approximately 14 of JDHS's 347 seniors won't pass the graduation test this year, the first in which it is required of all seniors. The test measures competency in reading, writing and math as separate components, and passage of each of the three is mandatory in order for seniors to receive a diploma.

That number would be higher except for special-education students who have been exempted from the requirement while the state works to settle a class-action lawsuit that says the test discriminates against special-ed students.

The upside of the graduation test is that it does require graduating seniors to demonstrate a certain proficiency in the three key subjects they've studied for most of the 12 years they've spent in public schools. That's an easy concept to grasp, for products of any of the state's public schools should have learned something during the course of their primary and secondary school years.

Add to that the fact that those who don't pass the graduation test do have options: they have an unlimited number of attempts to pass the exam (many states allow limited retakes of the test) and a number of colleges and universities allow students who don't pass the exam to enroll and pursue post-secondary studies. The U.S. Army will accept students who have received a certificate of achievement instead of their diploma, but those opting for military service must enlist within a year of leaving high school.

The downside of not earning a high school diploma still has to be the limitations it places on a youngster's options for more and better achievement in life. For more than 30 years a minimum of a high school diploma has been a requirement for most businesses as a hiring practice, and it has certainly been a minimum requirement of most colleges and universities.

This issue surfaced a couple of years ago in Georgia and it was much more controversial there than it probably ever will be here in Alaska. There, however, the controversy centered on the sense of entitlement on the part of students who failed the test. They and their parents mounted a rather potent offensive in which they argued that after 12 years of attending public schools even those who failed the graduation test had a right to graduate with their peers. That, of course, is ridiculous.

Not only did all seniors deserve to graduate, the arguments went, they especially deserved to participate in commencement exercises with their peers. To not do so would cause them embarrassment, students and parents said. That, of course, rankled teachers and administrators who were adamant about not rewarding failure on the part of those who may have attended class but absorbed little or nothing.

Kids who may not pass the graduation test don't need to settle for a certificate of achievement. To do so would be to settle for so much less than they might otherwise be able to accomplish, and the truth is that a high school diploma will open so many other doors much more quickly. It's a calling card they simply have to have.

• Bob Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at

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