Make diplomas meaningful through differentiation

Lane Wright

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

In light of the graduation scandals in D.C. Public Schools, Maryland, and other places, we have a new chance to ask ourselves an old question: What do we want to do differently?

How do we address the pressure school and district leaders feel to graduate kids that aren’t meeting requirements? (Finger-wagging and firing people certainly isn’t a complete solution.) And, most importantly, what do we want high school graduation to mean anyway?

This last question is essential if we’re going to get at what graduation requirements should be, so let me start there.

Here’s a multiple-choice question to kick it off: What does a high school diploma signify to you?

  1. The graduate is ready for college
  2. The graduate is ready to start a technical career
  3. The student has demonstrated the ability to accomplish something
  4. All of the above
  5. None of the above

There’s no wrong answer here. The point is we don’t all agree on what a diploma actually means (Twitter agrees with me), or even what it should mean. Many of us want it to mean “all of the above.” We want it to signal that students have the academic chops to move on to college or the technical skills to start down a career path. Some are even proposing we raise the standards for (and the integrity of) high school graduation by denying diplomas to those who can’t pass grade-level tests in required subjects.

For many others, “earning a diploma” means little more than that students completed a required program they probably found irrelevant, uninspiring, and monotonous. In one Twitter response, Robert Pondiscio took it a step lower and suggested receiving a diploma merely means that a student is at or near the age of eighteen (#SadButTrue, @rpondiscio, particularly when school leaders game the system.)

The problem is that each of these achievement goals—completion, college-ready, and skill-certified—are too different from each other to have one diploma representing each level. As such, the high school diploma ends up taking on the meaning of the lowest common denominator: completion.

We should differentiate diplomas

If our purpose in measuring graduation rates is to help as many students as possible become as successful as possible in adulthood, then continuing a system in which nearly everyone essentially gets a certificate of completion isn’t going to cut it. It’s true that there are other signals for college readiness (e.g., ACT/SAT scores, GPA, college application essays, etc.), but graduation should be one that joins with these other indicators to give people a more complete picture.

Denying diplomas to students who pass their classes (even if barely) and stick it out to the end also falls short of our goal. In that case, students who finish are treated the same as dropouts, which can lead to an undeserved feeling of defeat and limited opportunities because they don’t have anything to show for their effort.

By offering different diplomas depending on what the high school student has actually accomplished, we can bring honesty and clarity to graduation practices, and at the same time help children become as successful as they can be.

These designations should be simple and easy to interpret: 1. Finisher; 2. Academically Ready; 3. Skill Certified.


Everybody who meets the minimum standard gets a diploma. This isn’t too far from what we have now, it’s just that nobody actually goes around and says “your kid’s diploma is essentially just a certificate of completion. It doesn’t certify that he actually learned anything.” Nobody tells you that all it signifies is that he or she showed up for enough of their classes and, one way or another, passed them.

Though some may dismiss this idea as lowering the bar or devaluing the diploma, I would argue that it only lowers the bar if this is the only bar. Besides, it’s actually not lowering any bar; it’s simply acknowledging how low it already is. I would also contend that there’s value in just showing up, barely passing, and sticking it out to the end. James Heckman, acclaimed researcher at the University of Chicago, proved as much. Students who stick it out and pass, even if they struggle, deserve something that recognizes that work—something that distinguishes them from the dropout. The standards for receiving that diploma can essentially stay the same as they are in many states: Don’t miss too many days of school, pass your classes, and make up work if needed.

Academically Ready

This designation can be added to the base-level diploma similar to the way an honors designation is added in many existing systems. But the difference is that it will be based on students meeting proficiency levels on academic standards. In other words, they are actually competent in the required areas. Earning a high GPA and getting an “honors” designation is pretty subjective. Depending on the class, teacher, school, or district, you can have a lot of variation in terms of getting those grades. Scoring proficient on a standardized test is by no means a perfect measure, but it at least gives consistency across a state and thereby is a more meaningful measure of academic achievement.

Skill Certified

Kids who choose the career and technical education route can get the base-level diploma with an added CTE stamp for achieving certain technical skills in health-care, construction, programming, culinary arts, or whatever they choose. If states haven’t already defined high school certification levels, they can easily do so. Each specific area of certification can be noted on or with their diploma.

Acknowledging differences in a diploma will take some of the pressure off school leaders to cheat. It signals that, although we want all students to achieve at high levels academically or technically, there’s room for the reality that all kids won’t get there right away, and that there is value in getting kids across the finish line with integrity.

Make it meaningful

New Hampshire and Louisiana have started awarding differentiated diplomas in ways similar to what I’ve suggested. New York has been differentiating for decades. But they have so many designations, many of which are way too wonky, that most people don’t understand the difference or even bother keeping track. If the system for awarding diplomas is too complex, it loses meaning for those intended to benefit from it. As parents and students, it’s easy to grasp three levels and aim for your goal. But having a dozen different diplomas, like they do in the Empire state, muddles the meaning of each diploma and weakens accountability.

As parents, we want our children to move out someday, establish their own families, and be able to take care of themselves and others. As a society, we want people who work (adding to the economy and tax base), create, solve problems, volunteer, vote, inspire, build our nation, and serve the world. Getting a diploma doesn’t guarantee any of that, but if we are honest about how we award them and clear about what a diploma means, graduating high school can be an indicator of how well we’re reaching those goals.

Lane Wright is the Director of Policy Analysis at Education Post, which basically means he translates wonky jargon into language non-wonks can understand and appreciate.