GBC’s Fry: The value of a diploma

Don Fry Commentary on WYPR

Maryland’s public high school Class of 2009 is the first that must pass a battery of mandatory state tests in algebra, biology, English, and government in order to graduate. Almost 20 years of outcomes-based school reform has finally boiled down to its inevitable central focus — individual academic standards.

It forces us to face the ultimate question. When it comes to our children, what standards of academic achievement should parents and future employers reasonably expect from a graduating student?

Put another way, what is the value of a diploma these days?

These key questions have been lurking in the background as Maryland’s public school testing program has evolved from measuring the process — systems, entire schools, and composite achievement at various grade levels — to measuring the ultimate output: basic academic achievement by each student.

State schools superintendent Nancy Grasmick recently proposed allowing failing students to opt for a senior project in lieu of the state test. Her action she says, was prompted by strong pressure from parents who object to the test being a graduation prerequisite.

It’s not unreasonable to construct legitimate alternatives for special needs students and the small segment of bright students who are bad test-takers.

But remember, the score required to pass the state high school assessment tests is 1,602 out of a possible 2,600 points – roughly 62 percent.

It’s important for high school students to understand that these standards are minimal … and that taking full advantage of educational opportunities has dramatic, positive personal and career impacts that far exceed the value of the piece of paper they receive at graduation.

Who do employers say they are seeking for today’s workforce? Graduates with knowledge of math and science are highly sought. Above all, employers value graduates with strong thinking skills and the ability to communicate well.

Which brings me back to my original question – what are the standards that we should require from public high school students?

If not a score of 62 percent, then what?

For the Regional Business Report, this is Don Fry, President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, for 88.1 WYPR, your NPR news station.

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