Been There, Done That

February
2006
Paul Starer, Chair

By now it is widely known that high school students in the state of California who wish to earn a high school diploma will need to take and pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in order to earn the diploma. It has also been widely reported that as many as fiftythousand high school students state-wide have taken and not passed the CAHSEE, a figure that has rightfully startled the public consciousness of the state. What was not widely known, until a smattering of newspaper articles around the state drew attention to it, is the fact that several community colleges in California also offer high school diploma programs. Working in noncredit high school programs offered through their local community college, students may complete the work necessary to earn a high school diploma, and in many cases they may do so without taking or passing the CAHSEE.

It is not hard to imagine how this fact could be construed as the community college system setting up an end run around the public's desire to ensure that all the state's high school students graduate with a standardized level of achievement.

and this is exactly how the media has been reporting it. "Loophole Offers Hope After Failed Exit Exam," from the Sacramento Bee, November 2005. "Perilous Loophole on High School Diplomas," from the San Francisco Chronicle, November 2005.

As is so often the case in situations like this, the facts surrounding the issue have receded from the public rhetoric as politicians and the media have rushed to pull fire alarms and arouse the public's interest and concern. And facts are really needed when we consider the potential damage to the community college system's positive reputation among Californians, if the system allows itself to be characterized as wantonly thwarting the public will with regards to high school exit proficiencies.

So here are some facts worth considering as this controversy and its accompanying rhetoric begin to ramp up.

Yes, it is possible for a local community college to offer a high school diploma, but this is not a new ability community colleges have manufactured in anticipation of thousands of high school students failing the CAHSEE.

Rather, community colleges have had this ability almost since their inception. Both the California Education Code and Title 5 legislation have codified the power of community colleges to offer high school diploma programs. Such legislation is a throwback to when many community colleges were governed by their local K-12 districts and often served overlapping student populations in the areas of noncredit. The same legislation empowers community colleges to offer a wide variety of noncredit programs in everything from citizenship to basic skills math, english, and esl courses.

And since curriculum standards and exit competencies are matters determined by local community colleges and/or local districts, it is possible for a community college to offer a high school diploma without requiring its students to take and pass the cahsee. It is worth noting, however, that high school diploma requirements at the community colleges that offer them are quite rigorous with many colleges requiring their high school graduates to be proficient in reading, writing, math, and other core subjects, not all of which are examined by the cahsee. Students must also earn a minimum of 160 units in subjects that mirror the high school requirements around the state.

It is also worth noting that while every community college has the right to offer high school diploma programs, currently only five districts in the state account for the lion's share of diplomas offered system-wide.

The exact number of full time equivalent students enrolled in high school diploma programs systemwide is difficult to estimate, since current system office data groups these students with those enrolled in GED programs, programs that do not lead to a high school diploma. But even if we total all the students in high school diploma programs and GED programs systemwide, it amounts to a little over four-thousand ftes, hardly an indication that the community college system has opened the floodgates to high school diplomas, especially considering that we educate over two million students each year.

The concern about these diplomas becomes further diluted when one considers that the community colleges offering them frequently serve a distinctly adult population, students who are typically well beyond the age of your average high school student, students who may have dropped out when they were of high school age and who realize now, as adults, the earning power and personal satisfaction that they can acquire with a high school diploma.

These facts raise important questions for us as a system, for the colleges within our system that offer high school diplomas, and for the people of california in general. What must students demonstrate they know in order to earn a high school diploma and what is the best way for them to demonstrate this knowledge? If the cahsee is the standard for the vast majority of high school students in the state, might not the high school diploma-granting community colleges in the state consider including the cahsee as a requirement for their diplomas as well? There are indications that the legislature is looking into this possibility, and several colleges have already done this.

the California Community College system has never had it easy. With our multiple missions and our profoundly diverse student populations, we often appear to be trying to please all the people all the time. And the issues raised by our ability to offer high school diplomas challenge us to once again assert the value of what we do and the rigor with which we do it. As educators, we understand this kind of inquiry as central to our professional lives. So let us appeal to reason and ethics to navigate these issues and reach sound conclusions. For to do less would be to abdicate our responsibility to our students, our communities, and our state.

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