Education: Leaders React To Proposed Diploma Changes


Originally Appeared at GoLocalProv in January, 2011

Education Commissioner Deborah Gist and the Board of Regents are pressing forward with a plan to implement a three-tiered high school diploma system that would reward students who perform better on the NECAP by 2013.

But skeptics argue students from poor performing urban school districts will have virtually no chance to receive a top tiered diploma. They say the three-tiered system will do nothing more than highlight the wide achievement gap between white and minority students.

Gist fired back Thursday, criticizing a Providence Journal story she felt was incomplete and dispelling the notion that any students in Rhode Island would receive a certificate in lieu of a diploma. The second year Commissioner defended the initiative and blamed the current culture for allowing partial proficiency to become the status quo.

A Culture Problem
More stringent graduation requirements are nothing new to Rhode Island. Gist said the Board of Regents agreed to make changes to the system in 2003 and again in 2008. Under the new proposal, which is likely to be voted on in March, a Rhode Island diploma would be given to those students who do not pass any portion of the NECAP, but still pass in school. A Regents diploma would be awarded to those who demonstrate proficiency on the test and an Honors diploma would be given to those who score highly.

Gist said incentives like the advanced diplomas could help raise the bar in some schools.

“If we have a culture where people are offended by higher performing students,” she said. “Then we’ve got a problem with the culture. Too often we aim to hold everyone to the lowest standard. This has always been partial proficiency, so it has become the standard.”

System Only Enhances Differentiation of Students
In an e-mail forwarded around earlier in the week, President and CEO of the John Hope Settlement House Peter Lee said the three-tiered diploma proposal “only enhances the differentiation of students” and “It does not implement additional supports, nor does it establish a climate in which academic success is attainable and rewarding for all.”

The subject of the e-mail was titled “Race, Equity and the Achievement Gap…” Lee also questioned the point of the plan and asked if it will really provided great support for students.

“I believe the proposed plan, for all its good intentions, is short-sighted. I believe there are strategies we have not yet fully embraced that can make a difference for our children. Across the country, we hear superintendents saying that districts can’t do ‘it’ by themselves. But has the ‘it’ been clearly articulated?”

The College Factor
Another concern expressed by naysayers has been whether the three-tiered diploma system will effect college admissions. GoLocalProv contributor and Founder of College Admissions Advisors Cristiana M. Quinn said the new system probably won’t change much of anything when it comes to what colleges are looking for.

“I don’t see the three-tiered diplomas playing a significant role when it comes to admissions outside of Rhode Island,” Quinn said. “But it may for some of the state schools.”

The concern has been that students graduating with the third-tier Rhode Island diploma might be looked at in a negative light for not achieving a higher-tiered diploma. But Gist has made it clear that the Rhode Island diploma would be exactly the same as the one students receive today.

“One doesn’t count any more than the others,” Gist said. It’s just a reflection of [the students’] performance. The majority of Rhode Island students go on to Rhode Island schools. I’d actually like to see a day where maybe the Honors diploma means you get automatic admission or that you earn some sort of scholarship.”


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