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How states are reinventing what it takes to get a high school diploma


Governors and superintendents are scrapping requirements, undoing testing mandates and adopting emergency rules so that high school seniors can graduate this year.

The coronavirus crisis cut short the school year for K-12 schools in more than a dozen states, and others are in the middle of a shutdown they hope concludes before the scheduled end of the year. Yet 3.7 million aspiring graduates still need diplomas, and no one wants to see an explosion of dropouts.

“This is an international emergency,” said Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s elected school superintendent. “This is a time when peoples’ lives are in crisis, and we should not be holding back students who were on track to graduate, and on track to move onto higher education, in any way because of the Covid-19 crisis.”

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The crisis is prompting difficult conversations about how to graduate students who lost valuable instruction to an unpredictable event and what it means to earn a high school diploma. And colleges will have to cope with members of the class of 2020 who may not have fulfilled the normal demands of senior year.

States are adopting distinct approaches that may have uneven results and an uncertain effect on racial disparities that already pockmark climbing U.S. high school graduation rates.

Students in one state might speed to a diploma if their graduation was on track before the pandemic’s spread, while someone studying across the country might still need to complete classes off campus.

“I worry a lot about high school students who are potentially already somewhat disconnected from school ultimately dropping out,” said John King, president and CEO of The Education Trust and a former U.S. secretary of education. “We’ve made tremendous progress in this country around high school graduation, but there are a set of kids whose connection to school is fragile.”

Affluent suburban schools have fired up electronic learning software on fast web connections. That’s not necessarily the case for poor students in urban areas, tribal school students who lack electricity and students learning English.

In Virginia, where schools are canceled for the rest of this term, Gov. Ralph Northam’s state emergency declaration empowered state Superintendent James Lane to waive multiple requirements for history, performing arts or technical education courses for students scheduled to graduate this spring or summer. Emergency guidelines from the Virginia Board of Education also allow local schools to award seniors class credit if they were enrolled in a required course and had already completed a majority of the class objectives. Schools are still required to “exhaust all options” to teach students who need to catch up before awarding credit.

Arizona’s State Board of Education convened a special meeting to approve emergency rules for awarding class credit and high school diplomas. The state’s school districts and charters now have sweeping discretion to award credit or diplomas to students who were “on track” to graduate before schools shut down. The state instructed schools to avoid withholding diplomas from seniors just because they missed class time due to the outbreak.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy signed executive orders Tuesday waiving testing requirements for eighth and 12th graders, easing the way for 13,000 seniors to graduate.

How states are reinventing what it takes to get a high school diploma 2

California’s education department expects local schools to complete state graduation requirements with flexible types of assignments and grading. School authorities must still request minimum graduation requirement waivers for specific students from the state.

New Mexico’s government urges schools to adopt pass-fail grades for students as part of its strategy to make up for a canceled school year. New rules allow seniors to use qualifying scores from college entrance exams or complete locally designed projects to attain class credit.

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Students in danger of not graduating have until June 19 to catch up, or have the option of taking summer courses and appealing to local and state authorities if they can’t.

“They’re first and foremost what we’re guiding districts to focus on,” New Mexico superintendent Ryan Stewart said of his state’s seniors.

“We’ve had every creative way that we can think of to try to connect students with their teachers and a positive learning experience,” he said. “We know it gets a lot harder when you get to more remote places that have less access to technology and electricity and some of that basic infrastructure.”

Colleges might have to rethink how they treat freshmen who didn’t complete a normal last year of high school.

Colleges should invest more in programs that offer intensive tutoring, King said, and argued that any future congressional stimulus bill should send money to help minority-serving institutions and community colleges.

“There is both work that states and districts need to do now to help students complete the year successfully, but then there’s work that higher ed and workforce development programs need to do to prepare to support entering students who will have missed significant portions of the school year as a result of the closures,” King said.

Accomplishing all of that will be challenging, and likely will not replace the loss of a revered tradition across the country: a traditional high school graduation.

“I know many of our families and even our students have expressed strong concerns about the loss of their graduation ceremonies,” Hoffman said.

“I feel very sympathetic towards that, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see innovative ways for each school to celebrate their seniors this spring. But I know that for many, it’s not going to feel the same.”

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