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But that rule was rescinded as of July 1, 2012.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  The Feds repealed Ability to Benefit long after that, in response to, well, I’m sure it was in response to something.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.