Monday, May 15, 2006

The Value of a High School Diploma

Back in the 1980's when I was hiring entry level food service workers on a regular basis, whether or not they had a high school diploma could be an important factor in whether or not they got an interview. I never asked about GPA, areas of study, or... well, really anything about the academic side of their diploma. The diploma correlated in my experience with a better set of core competency skills (for example, I would not have to explain to the employee how to measure 1/4 pound on a digital scale), and during times when there was a large stack of applications it was an easy way to narrow the pool of applicants under consideration.

Really, in today's era, what sort of job do you get on the basis of a high school diploma alone? If you choose employment over college, the range of job opportunities available to you narrows each year. Now yes, a prospective employer should be able to anticipate that a high school graduate will be able to translate fractions to decimals when selling sliced meats or cheese in the deli, but how many jobs which are available to high school graduates expect much more than that?

I started to write this before I saw Mike's post over at Crime and Federalism describing the abuse of accommodation of disability by law school students, which in turn leads to Walter Olson's implication that somebody will suffer harm if students who have successfully completed all of their coursework, but fail a standardized graduation test, get their diploma. The thing is, a high school diploma isn't worth much on the job market beyond signifying that you have successfully completed all of your coursework. The last time I saw an application form for a fast food restaurant, at the time Burger King, they included a math test for all applicants. Even in a different era, when a high school diploma was a requirement to get into a union job that could potentially pave your way to a solidly middle class lifestyle, you had to get through the interview. So who, exactly, is hurt if these kids get their diplomas?

(If it needs saying, I'm not arguing in favor of the status quo, and I favor improving schools to the point that it wouldn't occur to people that such a test were even necessary.)


  1. I think the outrage has less to do with it awarding undeserving students a high school diploma qua dipolma: The upset has more to deal with the general war against standards, and the abuse of the legal system.

    Fail a test? Then take this two-part course: 1. Remind yourself it's not your fail, and 2. Sue!

    I can't see how that attitude is good for society.


  2. There's another way to look at it, though. A student does everything that is required of him or her to graduate from high school, but a new requirement is added at the last minute which prevents the student from receiving his or her diploma. Even accepting the deficiencies of the existing standard, what right does the state have to impose such a new standard on students who passed every existing standard?.

    I had to pass the bar exam to enter legal practice, but I still would have felt it inappropriate if my law school had decided in my third year that I had to pass the bar exam in order to receive my law degree.

    In any event, this post was about the public policy issues associated with imposing (or not imposing) such a test at the end of high school. What I am asking here is whether there is actually a harm in awarding a diploma to a student who has met all requirements for graduation but has failed the state test. It may well offend Walter Olson's sensitivities to award a diploma to such a student, particularly if she sues to get it, but that's not really the type of harm I had in mind.

  3. The idea of any standardized test fully validating an education experience is hooey. As with the SAT and ACT used for college applications, a standardized test should be regarded in a general sense as merely an aspect of someone's qualifications. Tests are frequently and mistakenly used to reduce an individual's qualification to some numerical value, which is a bureaucratic response to evaluating large numbers of people -- especially in the prescreening process.

    That said, I recognize that licensing boards such as the AMA and ABA rely on standardized exams. That's their privilege. But of course, there are plenty of incompetent attorneys and physicians able to pass those exams.


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