Erik Abramson had once been labeled as highly gifted, but his grades started dropping in middle school. High school bored him. His report cards at University City High were strewn with Ds and Fs.
Erik had below a C average when he started his senior year and was a dozen credits short of his graduation requirements, even though he scored well on state science and history tests. When he didn’t pull up his grades in time to graduate, he went on to adult education for a second chance.
“I just wanted to get it finished really fast,” he said.
And he did. Less than a month after he enrolled in the program, Erik walked out with a different kind of diploma that asked much less of him. His father is furious, arguing that the district allowed a bright kid to “sleepwalk” through high school, fall short of its requirements, then get a diploma anyway.
“They just pushed him through,” Paul Abramson said. “He doesn’t deserve that diploma.”
The school district combed through Erik’s transcript for passing grades to get Erik the 2.0 he needed, put him through a business class and a typing class, and let him graduate with roughly half as many credits as he would have needed otherwise. Erik said the classes took just a few hours a day.
The alternative diploma meets the minimum requirements under California law for a high school diploma. It is only offered to teens at alternative high schools for struggling students and in adult education. Roughly 7 percent of San Diego Unified graduates got the alternative diploma last year, letting them check off the box on job applications that says they’ve graduated high school.
“The expectation is every kid starts off pursuing a regular diploma,” said Jolie Pickett, principal of the alternative Garfield High School. “But there are always safety nets for students who fall back.”
But giving kids two paths to a diploma raises questions about rigor. Right now, San Diego Unified is ramping up its regular graduation requirements to match what students need to apply to state universities. The goal is to help more students graduate ready for college or a career.
Yet San Diego Unified still offers a route to a diploma that falls far short of its usual demands. The alternative diploma counts just like a standard one for San Diego Unified graduation rates, since it meets California rules.
But students can’t use it to go straight into a California public university, since it doesn’t meet the college requirements that San Diego Unified is trying to match. They can go to community colleges — but they could do that without getting a high school diploma at all.
The typical San Diego Unified diploma takes 44 semester credits. The alternative one only requires 26 credits and the district recently made it easier to get. Both diplomas require students to snag a 2.0 grade point average, pass the high school exit exam, present a senior exhibition and prove their computer literacy.
Some education experts fear that offering an easier route can shortchange students. California has some of the lowest graduation requirements in the country, which is why many districts have set the bar much higher. Several neighboring school districts, including Grossmont, San Dieguito and Sweetwater, say they offer just one diploma to avoid diverting kids into less advanced programs.
“The concern is if you’ve got a lower diploma, the incentive sometimes is to encourage kids into that less rigorous diploma — usually students who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Matt Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve, an education nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
On the flip side, former San Diego Unified Superintendent Terry Grier liked the idea of different diplomas and touted making the alternative diploma easier to access for students at ordinary high schools, saying if a student met state requirements, they should get a diploma.
Pickett pointed out that students who are so far behind that they opt for the alternative diploma are probably not headed straight for university anyway. One employment expert said that even a regular high school diploma is so minimal that it isn’t much worse to have a bare bones diploma.
“People who just have a high school diploma are frankly unemployed, whether you have the traditional diploma or you have this one,” said Louis Song, CEO of Proven Staffing Consultants.
Should San Diego Unified keep offering a lesser diploma while upping its regular requirements? And what should a high school diploma mean, after all? Please weigh in here on the blog.