Monday, August 05, 2013


Completed But Not Graduated

What do you do with a student who finished high school but didn’t graduate?

For a long time, that would have been a nonsense question.  If you made it to the end of high school, you graduated.  But that’s not necessarily true anymore.

With the advent of statewide exams that students have to pass to get a diploma, we’re seeing a small, but increasing, cohort of students who finished and passed the twelfth grade, but who didn’t officially “graduate” because they didn’t pass the exam.  Instead, they get “certificates of completion.”

Until last year, we had the option of admitting those students into degree programs through the “Ability to Benefit” rule.  If a student scored at a particular level on a placement exam, that would suffice to show that the student had the ability to benefit from college-level instruction, and we could admit her.  

But that rule was rescinded as of July 1, 2012.  Now, we can only admit students to credit-bearing programs if they have either a high school diploma or a GED.  For our purposes, certificates of completion don’t count as diplomas.  Students who ran out of high school, but didn’t pass the exam, have to get a GED.

That wasn’t really the purpose of the GED.  It was really meant for dropouts who wanted to get back on track.  But here we are.

Meanwhile, over the last year, the GED became both more rigorous and more expensive.

So now a student who finished high school, but who struggles on exams, has to take a second exam -- now more rigorous and expensive -- in order to be eligible to take yet another set of exams to determine placement.


In fairness, nobody consciously designed the system this way.  High-stakes graduation exams came from the state, in response to a federal law (No Child Left Behind).  The Feds repealed Ability to Benefit long after that, in response to, well, I’m sure it was in response to something.  The GED is run by a private company, and it’s moving to ensure its own continued relevance in the face of the older exam underpredicting success.  

But at a certain point, intentions don’t matter much.  The world confronting the student with a certificate of completion is much harsher than it was even two years ago.  (I can hear Tressie McMillan Cottom in my head: “It’s a SYSTEM!”  Well, yeah...)  A student who had the misfortune to attend a weaker high school is likelier to score poorly on the graduation exam, if she makes it that far.  Then, she’ll be less likely to be able to afford the new GED, and to pass it.  And if she does manage to pass it, then she’s faced with another battery of exams that could result in additional semesters of coursework that won’t count towards a degree, but that will count towards the new, lower lifetime Pell limit that was reduced in 2012...


None of this is a reflection on any one person’s (or one college’s) performance.  It’s about the rules of the game by which we all play.  In my more utopian moments, I occasionally wonder how the rules would be different if we kept in mind that student who made it through a rough high school but doesn’t test well.  She deserves better than this.

Ah, another Class War tree, carefully and lovingly described.
Somewhere out there in the next few years thousands (?) of students will confront this, and will be told, or will tell themselves, that the dead end they're facing is their own fault. They took a wrong turn when they were fifteen and now they're trapped. I wish I could show all of them this post, written by someone who doesn't know them years before they faced this problem, so that they would understand that it's not just them. The system really is messed up. The stakes aren't supposed to be that high in high school, and they weren't always. I wish I could give some of the kids who are going to get screwed by these new realities the gift of righteous indignation in place of the depression and self-loathing I'm sure many of them will feel.

Correction: Your state adopted those tests in response to NCLB, but NCLB was a result of other states that required passing a test to get a HS degree and lobbied to extend this idea nationally.

Second Correction: In my state, a student can drop out of public HS (with required tests) and finish at a private HS (where you get a diploma without passing the state test). Yes, that does require some awareness and resources, so it might be less well known if those tests are relatively new in your area. Most athletes know about it, and CC football exists to further bridge that gap.

But do you really want someone in your class who believes that all they have to do to pass a college class is to put in their time? Trust me, it was much better when HS teachers failed students and they flunked out. (This was well before your time. One of my fellow HS "grads", who finished with a 1.0 gpa, made the jump from wasting his life to a productive life after he grew up a little.) It was the worst when "time served" was enough.

Now the problem is the prevalence of cram-and-forget study methods pushed to help students pass those high stakes tests. I've had to consciously un-teach that style in my college classes and spend more time on problem solving that is no longer part of the HS curriculum.

IME, students who earn a GED and go to CC understand the need for further remediation and do it. Most only need it in math. If the new GED is properly aligned, the need for math remediation should be reduced.
I have a different viewpoint, perhaps because I was one of those students, back when finishing Senior year without a diploma was a curiosity. At the time (1972), my lack of a diploma did not seem to faze any of the state universities or SLACs that accepted me for admission.

If some middle-aged fellow shows up at our CC door, looking to take some classes, we don't ask to see his diploma. Why wouldn't we do the same for teenagers? As long as a student can demonstrate that s/he has the ability to benefit from the class (presumably based on courses from a HS transcript or placement tests), why wouldn't we take them?

With the rise of dual-enrollment HS/CC programs where CC courses are taught in the HSs (and vice-versa), the HS/CC line has already been blurred. Why is anyone still trying to make that distinction?

I think that it is great to see that there are certain requirements to achieve a HS diploma, and that seems worthwhile for students who do not continue into higher education. But if they do continue, that diploma rapidly recedes into the background as students build a college transcript.
I'm guessing that this is just a wording issue... But, NCLB does not require that anyone "pass" any exams to graduate from anything.

NCLB requires that states give a test annually in 1-8 (I always forget whether K is included or not) and at least once in high school and that the state use the scores to make determinations about how the school is doing.

The Mass Comprehensive Assessment System* operates with school-based stakes only from 1-8. It's only the high school exam that the state decided to make high-stakes for the individual students.

Many other states have adopted a similar set of rules, some have not.

That is, yes, there's a state test, but the fact that it's high-stakes for students is completely the decision of your state. Lobby the lawmakers to change it and you can. But, the wording in the post makes it appear that the high-stakes nature is the result of NCLB.

Just as long as I'm on this informational kick: charter schools do take the state tests and have to report the results in MA (YMMV here), but as CCPP notes, private schools don't.

*Quick, name at least two things that the name wants you to believe that aren't really at all true.

Answer: It's neither comprehensive nor is it really a system, it's just one test ...
Just out of curiosity? Why would students with a GED have to go to a CC instead of directly into college? The GED was creted to allow thoser whose military service had interupted achooling and made them too old on returning from service to go back to HS able to demonstrate their readiness for work and/or post-secondary education.
Here, in Canada, we use the GED to show, for example, that home-schooled kids have met the provincial standards (or, s in my kid's case, exceeded them). That's a present use for a world in which few Canadian youth are off at war, and the results here give an indication of where the GED writer places in relation to regular HS completers. THe GED results here are valid for entry into university and into college, or into the (increasingly small) workforce for HS grads.
In our case we home-schooled our kid when the system told us they had no capacity to deal with our "twice exceptional" kid -- he has a processing delay combined with 91st to 97h percentile talents in maths, working memory, logic, language and rhetoric as measured by WISK and WIAT III.
In the US, my uncle left his military service in the 50s with his GED and most of a private Catholic HS education and went directly into university in a LLB, and then JD programme.
What the heck has happened to render the GED a "second rate" measure since then? It's either an "equivalency" test, or it isn't. If you finish in the top 10% of the national control group but still have to go to a CC for "further remediation" that seems to knock out all the gifted/talented who are so often also LD students, and are knocking out those with military service interrupting the usual flow (still common among those for whom post-secondary isn't even thinkable without military service benefits). So, what's up with that?
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