Schools should stand behind their diplomas

In September 2000, the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy released a study that quantified how much Michigan institutions of higher learning and businesses spend to accommodate the lack of basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills among high school graduates and employees. At least one-third of Michigan students are leaving our schools in need of remedial education and it's costing the state's businesses and universities more than $600 million annually.

The study was not a condemnation of all public schools, but it should serve to encourage districts in Michigan to guarantee their communities that they are providing students with basic academic skills. Study author Dr. Jay P. Greene recommended that districts: a) adopt a test that students must pass before receiving diplomas and b) hold themselves financially liable for graduates who need remedial education.

I am proud to report that Rockford Public Schools recognized this need long ago and implemented measures to ensure our community that we are graduating students who possess basic academic competencies. In fall 1989, the Rockford Public Schools Board of Education surveyed the community to determine what expectations residents and district employees have for their school system. One of the questions asked if students should be required to demonstrate proficiency in basic reading and mathematics prior to earning a high school diploma. Over 94 percent of the respondents said yes.

In 1991, following a comprehensive pilot program, our Board of Education implemented a competency testing component as part of the requirements for a high school diploma. This component requires students to take mathematics and reading tests during the spring of their freshman year. If a student fails either one of the tests, he or she must select one of several options for remediation prior to retaking the test or tests the following school year. Successful completion of both tests is a prerequisite for earning a high school diploma from Rockford Public Schools.

Students completing all course work and other requirements for a diploma except for passing both competency tests are issued a "certificate of completion" in place of a diploma. Students may return after their senior year and retake the tests and, if successful, are only then issued a diploma.

Because students must successfully complete the competency tests prior to earning a diploma, Rockford Public Schools guarantees that students graduating with a diploma do indeed possess basic skills in mathematics and reading. If an employer who hires a Rockford graduate does not believe that the former student has those skills to do his or her job, the employer is encouraged to contact me with those concerns. I will then offer the graduate remedial classes in the area in which he or she is deficient, free of charge, through our adult education program. Information on this service is prominently displayed on each diploma, and it is communicated throughout the greater Grand Rapids area.

The competency testing initiative was implemented with the ninth-grade class of 1991, having a direct impact on the 1995 graduates. The class of 2001 will be the seventh senior class required to meet the competency testing requirement for a high school diploma. I am unaware of any other Michigan school district that offers such a program or that otherwise guarantees the real meaning of its diplomas.

Since the initial community-wide questionnaire in 1989, three additional surveys have followed, each including the competency testing questions. Results continue to be overwhelming: Parents strongly support maintaining this requirement for a diploma.

The testing initiative is not intended to be punitive in nature. It was developed instead to both encourage students to be active participants in their education as well as promote the community's and employers' confidence in their local schools.

I encourage all public school districts in Michigan to hold themselves accountable by adopting competency testing that reflects the expectations and desires of the community and ensuring that the diplomas they grant are representative of academic achievement. Our communities and children deserve nothing less than a quality education from every public school in our state. It is time we all stood behind our diplomas.