The victims of unearned diplomas

Adam Tyner, Ph.D. and Brandon L. Wright:

Upwards of 3.6 million high school seniors graduated this year, and most of them left twelfth grade with a reasonable complement of the knowledge and skills we expect of those taking their first steps into adulthood—be that college, career or technical training, military service, even a fruitful “gap year.” Most—but not all. Recent scandals in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere have made clear that far too many young people are being shuttled through secondary school with little regard for whether they leave with the requisite skills.

Pressure to boost graduation rates plays a role—but so do complex motivations like empathy and fear for kids’ future well-being. It’s these latter impulses that lead folks to believe that easing expectations, at least for especially disadvantaged students, is a victimless act, maybe even a noble one. “These struggling students will be even worse off without diplomas!” such a person might declare. “So what if they missed some days of school? They made it this far, and we can’t mess with their futures. Let’s get them across the finish line.”

But step back a moment and you will see the harm. Awarding diplomas to students who miss weeks of school diminishes the credential’s meaning. And the excuses we have made for these near-passing students are built on slippery slopes: As we saw in D.C.’s Ballou High School and elsewhere, overlooking weeks of missed schools can easily turn into overlooking months. The Washington Post reported last week that the response of D.C. Public Schools to the scandal is to soften the official attendance policy so that more students can graduate, an example of “defining deviancy down.” In the end, the meaning of the diploma is lost.