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DC education officials are planning to grant high school diplomas to adults who complete high school equivalency programs. But some members of the State Board of Education have challenged one program’s rigor, raising the question: What does a DC high school diploma actually signify?

Adults in DC who pass the GED exam currently receive a certificate, not a high school diploma. Some employers and colleges prefer a diploma.

In 2014, the GED organization overhauled the test, aligning it to the Common Core educational standards. The computer-based exam is now seven hours long and calibrated so that 40% of traditional high school graduates wouldn’t be able to pass it.

In recognition of that increased rigor, DC’s State Board of Education (SBOE) recently directed the State Superintendent of Education to draft regulations that would award high school diplomas to GED graduates. But in a more controversial move, the regulations would also confer state diplomas on those who graduate from the lesser-known National External Diploma Program (NEDP).

Rather than taking a single test, NEDP graduates must demonstrate 70 different “competencies” in subjects like financial literacy, civic literacy, history, and science. Students work one-on-one with a “buddy” and then are assessed individually on each competency.

The NEDP works better for some adults, but its rigor is unclear

Adult educators say the NEDP, intended for students 25 and older, is better than the GED for people who suffer from test anxiety or have unpredictable work schedules that prevent them from attending regular classes. There are NEDP programs in seven states in addition to DC, which has eight NEDP sites.

The developers of the NEDP say the assessment, like the GED, has been revamped to be more rigorous. And administrators at Academy of Hope, a DC adult charter school that offers both the GED and the NEDP, agree. Five of the six students who got the NEDP credential at the Academy last year are now enrolled in college and are doing well, they say.

But Ward 3 SBOE member Ruth Wattenberg and two of her colleagues have asked for objective evidence of the NEDP’s rigor, along the lines of the documentation provided for the GED. The NEDP specifies standards and tasks—such as “Describe contributions from diverse cultures to life in the United States”—and requires students to demonstrate “mastery” of each of them. But, Wattenberg argues, it’s not clear whether mastery means a Ph.D.-level thesis or a simple paragraph.

In response to Wattenberg’s questions, the State Superintendent of Education, Hanseul Kang, has promised that testing experts at her agency will conduct an independent evaluation of the NEDP’s rigor before the SBOE votes on the regulations at its meeting on January 20th.

One wrinkle is that graduates of the NEDP program already get regular diplomas, albeit ones issued by individual high schools rather than by the State Superintendent. At Academy of Hope, for example, NEDP graduates get diplomas from Ballou STAY, an alternative DC Public School high school that is also an NEDP site.

Kang says her office included the NEDP in the proposed regulations to ensure that in the future, graduates get a diploma regardless of where they complete the program. But the fact is, the proposed regulations wouldn’t change the current situation for NEDP graduates.

Still, Wattenberg says that including the NEDP in the regulations without evidence of the test’s rigor would set a dangerous precedent and—if it’s put in the same basket as the GED—unfairly dilute the value of a state diploma for GED graduates.

What level of rigor does a regular diploma require?

That may be true. But a larger problem is that we don’t know the level of rigor required to obtain a regular DC high school diploma.

Yes, DC’s graduation requirements, which are Common Core-aligned and include three years of math, look rigorous on paper. And it’s true students have to pass their courses in order to graduate.

But those familiar with high-poverty high schools say students are often promoted from grade to grade without having mastered course content. Teachers may be under pressure to keep up a school’s graduation rate, or they may not want students with behavior problems back in their classrooms for another year.

And some high-poverty high schools saw none of their students score proficient in reading or math on Common Core-aligned tests given last year. On last year’s SAT, eight DCPS high schools had average scores below 1,000, well below the national average of 1490.

Current graduation requirements are unrealistically high

A more fundamental question is whether we’ve set high school graduation requirements—including those for the new GED, and possibly the NEDP—unrealistically high, based on the assumption that all students need to be prepared for college. We shouldn’t exclude any students from a college prep curriculum if they’re willing to do the work, but we also need to provide high-quality options for those who want to head straight into the workforce.

Over 60,000 DC residents 18 or older lack a high school diploma or its equivalent. Many need diplomas to enter apprenticeship programs in the construction trades, or to move up in fields like health care or day care.

But officials at Academy of Hope say 90% of their students arrive functioning at or below a 6th-grade level. And it takes 400 hours to prepare them for the new GED, as compared to 100 for the old one. The numbers taking the tests have dropped significantly because of the new rigor, they say.

The biggest obstacle is algebra, as it is for students at traditional high schools. But according to one estimate, only 5% of entry-level workers actually need to be proficient in algebra. Are we simply putting an artificial barrier between people who could handle the demands of many jobs and employers who would like to hire them?

We should require that a high school diploma signifies a certain level of achievement, as Wattenberg argues. But ideally, that requirement would apply not just to adult learners but also to the many more who obtain diplomas the usual way.

And we need to question the assumption that high school or its equivalent is just a stepping-stone to college, especially when so few DC high school students get there. True, a high school diploma alone doesn’t mean much in the job market these days. But that could change if we started equipping high school students with skills that would actually render them valuable to employers.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.