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Base High School Diploma on Competency

With few exceptions, a college degree is awarded on the basis of credit hours and years of study ("Are You Competent? Prove It." The New York Times, Oct. 29).  But a movement is underway to replace that practice with demonstrable evidence of learning, regardless of the units accumulated or the time spent in the lecture hall.  I think the idea is also applicable to high school.

Years ago, Leon Botstein, president of Bard, wrote: "the American high school is obsolete and should be abolished" ("Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood," The New York Times, May 17, 1999).  I wouldn't go nearly that far, but I don't believe seat time is necessarily linked to achievement.  If students can prove that they possess the requisite knowledge and skills, why should they be forced to amass a stipulated number of credit hours or years of study to graduate?  

They can demonstrate their ability by portfolios, projects and research papers.  For example, The Concord Review regularly publishes student papers that far surpass anything I've seen before by high school students anywhere. How, when and where they developed the wherewithal to do so is beside the point.  The fact remains that they possess the ability.  They may not be socially and psychologically ready for college, but that's another issue entirely.

When I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I had several students who asked for my opinion about the essays, short stories and poems they had written on their own.  After reading them, I thought it was a waste of their time to require them to take my class in order to graduate.  The best I could do, however, was to excuse them from the class assignments and let them continue to work according to their own internal schedule.  I call these students "virtuosos" because I had nothing at all to do with their performance.

But students need not be virtuosos to qualify for my proposal.  If high schools required teachers to routinely administer a pre-test to students in their classes, they might find many students who already have the necessary competencies.  They could then be exempt from taking the class.  The point is that high schools need more flexibility in determining who already qualifies for a diploma. Unfortunately, the accountability movement is unlikely to adopt my recommendation.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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