A new civil right

Why not just hand out a diploma with the birth certificate?

You learn something new every day.

For example, I never knew — until “The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University” told me — that it was a civil right to get a high-school diploma now matter how little you know, and consequently to have a high-school diploma that certifies precisely nothing about your abilities and which therefore has roughly no value in the job market.

Below is the full text of the press release that just hit my in-box. (No, I have no idea how I got on their mailing list.)

For Immediate Release

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Chris Knaus

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University

(510) 258-7794

Al Kauffman

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University

(857) 919-3874

John Affeldt

Public Advocates, Inc.

(415) 431-7430

Janelle Ishida

Californians for Justice

(408) 272-0236

Effect of California High School Exit Exam

Subject of San José Conference

Tens of Thousands of California Students

Will Not Receive a High School Diploma

Because of High School Exit Test:

Accurate Data to be Released at Conference

Conference Will Explore the California Exit Tests’ Relation to School Quality and Dropouts

What: California High School Exit Exam Convening

When: Tuesday, August 23, 2005, 10:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Where: National Hispanic University, 14271 Story Road, San José, California

(San José, California) – On August 23, local, state and national education experts, advocates and students will join community members and educators in San José to focus on research on the potentially devastating effects of California’s High School Exit Exam on California students and communities.

Despite recent research studies showing an alarmingly low 71 percent high school graduation rate in California, the Exit Test will first be used as a bar to high school graduation in May 2006. This exam is being laid on a system of public schools with blatant inequalities.

According to the California Department of Education, more than 50,000 California potential 2006 graduates have not yet passed the English-Language Arts test and more than 50,000 California potential 2006 graduates have not passed the Mathematics test. Under present law, a student must pass both of these tests to receive the diploma they have been working toward for 12 years, regardless of their grades or the educational opportunities they have had.

“These statistics greatly underestimate the real barriers created by the tests,” noted Dr. Gary Orfield, Director of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. “California hasn’t told us how many students have failed to pass both tests. As with its shocking dropout statistics, California does not know how many students are just leaving school instead of continuing to take a test they see no realistic opportunity to pass.” A recent national report by CEP decried the extremely negative effect of exit tests on English Language Learners.

Unveiling a report from UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA), Professor John Rogers provides new analyses of data just released by the California Department of Education on August 15, 2005. Rogers offers a far more realistic estimate of the effects of the exit tests on students of color, students with disabilities, English Language Learners and students attending schools identified by the Williams case and the No Child Left Behind Act as not meeting state educational standards. “Students in schools with the highest rates of failure,” Rogers reports, “have been denied access to qualified teachers and other conditions essential for learning. It’s unspeakable that these students must pay such a high price for the state’s failure to educate them.”

Liz Guillen of Public Advocates will speak at the conference on the proposals for legislative reform before the California Legislature. “The exam by itself is not a true accountability measure. Real accountability would ensure that the State and schools are actually providing students adequate opportunities to learn.”

Speakers at the conference will also discuss the increasing use of high school exit tests during the last decade, the extremely negative effects the tests are having on students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. Leading scholars such as Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond and Dr. Jeannie Oakes will describe alternatives in use in other states, the California drop out rate and its effect on California’s economy, and the relationship of the test to the special issues of urban education and proper test use.

During the conference, local educators and community members will join with state and national experts to discuss how to respond to the upcoming final implementation of the testing system, and have real discussions of the positives and negatives of this type of testing.

The conference will end with a panel of California High School students discussing the effects these tests will have on them and their fellow students.


CO-SPONSORS: The conference is co-sponsored by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, Public Advocates, Californians for Justice, Bay Area Legal Aid, California Rural Legal Assistance, Legal Advocates for Children & Youth, National Hispanic University, Public Interest Law Firm, Youth Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Dr. Roberto Cruz Foundation. It is supported by a grant from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. ###


A reader comments:

The question is not whether there’s a right to a diploma, but whether it’s just for the government to punish people for its own failures.

That is: given the possibility of learning what one should learn in high school, it’s in the interests of would-be graduates to have diplomas that matter. But given a school that does not even offer the subjects you need in order to learn what you should–nor teachers competent enough to learn from–it’s in the interest of a student at that school to have a diploma as meaningless as everyone else’s, as opposed to the much clearer signal of lacking a diploma when others have one. The interests of those students must of course be balanced against those of students who really have learned something in high school and could use the credential. But given that I don’t believe in desert in these matters, I’m not sure it’s in society’s overall interest to keep the students who’ve learned least out of remedial courses in community college.

It seems to me there are two questions here, one about fairness and one about benefits and costs. Certainly there are students who sit through twelve years learning nothing who benefit mildly by getting diplomas rather than not getting them. They’re clearly losers under the new policy.

But everyone who does learn enough to get a diploma even under the new standards (and who doesn’t go on to college) suffers from devaluing that diploma by separating it from learning, and therefore gains from converting the diploma into a guarantee of at least a minimum amount of literacy and numeracy.

(Of course, there’s the alternative of having a diploma-for-attendance given to everyone and a diploma-for-learning given to those who had actually learned something, and perhaps even a diploma-for-serious-learning for those who had actually learned a lot, on the model of the old New York State Regents’ Diploma. The same applies to the GED, which studies suggest has almost no job-market value; why not create an “honors GED”?)

As to the problem that denying people diplomas will deny them access to the community-college system, couldn’t that be fixed by creating appropriate remidial programs at the community-college level?

While there are lots of rotten schools around, I doubt there are any that fail to teach enough reading and math to meet the (appallingly low) standards of the exam. So I doubt that any student fails the test simply because the relevant learning wasn’t on offer. (That’s as opposed to the real problem of schools that don’t offer the courses needed to prep for college.)

Some students, even in rotten schools, who want their diplomas will be willing to work for them; if a diploma requires passing a test, they will do the work they need to do to pass the test. Some of that additional learning will, no doubt, be about how to take the test, but some of it will involve learning to read and to do math. Those students will gain twice: once by learning something, and again by having a piece of paper which (unlike the current California high school diploma) proves it.

So it’s hard for me to believe that the benefits of the new program (the gains to those who gain from it) really exceed its costs (the losses to those who would get the seat-warming diploma but won’t be able or willing to do the work to get the learning diploma). That leaves the “fairness” argument: that it’s unfair that students cheated once by being sent to rotten schools should be cheated again by not even getting a piece of paper, however flimsy, as a reward for sitting still for twelve years.

But to attack that problem by insisting that the diploma remain without content is surely solving the wrong problem. It seems to me that the relevant right here is the right to a real education, not the right to a booby-prize diploma.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com