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Aurora Institute

When Diplomas and Credits Send False Signals

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Karla Esparza-Phillips

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

PercentageThis post originally appeared at the Foundation for Excellence in Education on June 11, 2015.

Last month Achieve launched its #HonestyGap campaign. The effort highlights the gap between the percent of students deemed proficient on state exams versus the percent of students deemed proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Not surprisingly, the gaps are wide and pervasive.

The NAEP is considered to be the gold standard of assessments, and this Achieve report clearly demonstrates how parents, students and, quite frankly, educators are being misled by inconsistent expectations of proficiency. In many states when a student passes a state exam, it may not mean he has mastered the content. Often the tests are too easy or the passing scores too generous.

This proficiency gap is decried by the education reform community, but the NAEP isn’t a test most parents are even aware of because it has no impact on individual students or state accountability systems.

Parents typically rely on the most familiar aspect of American education to understand how their student is performing in school—the report card.

The real miscommunication happens when students earn passing grades in required courses yet struggle with end of year assessments. Students may accumulate all the required credits, but what is their diploma worth if they haven’t mastered the content?

Even if changes are made to assessment policies as the Achieve report suggests, there will still be discrepancies between grades and test scores, as long as students continue to progress through the system with mere passing scores after the requisite 180 days.

As goals and expectations for students rise across the nation, our approach to education must change.

The conventional, one-size-fits-all system must evolve and adapt to meet the individual needs of all students and equip them for success in the 21st century. This may require us to rethink some of the most entrenched American education traditions. Could it be that grades, credits and diplomas should be based on actual proficiency rather than allowing passing grades and seat-time to be the goal?

Please note that I’m talking about proficiency, not overall success. No one would refute that encouraging and measuring attendance, participation, engagement, motivation, etc. are extremely important and necessary to help students be truly prepared for college and career.  But perhaps it’s time to separate these elements from determining mastery of content.

A shift away from some of the most familiar aspects of our traditional system will be difficult, but it is no longer optional. The current system is failing too many students. No matter what standards or innovations we use, a conveyor-belt model limits student achievement in two fundamental ways. It holds back students who could be excelling, and it advances students who aren’t ready.

For years, diplomas and credits based on seat time and passing grades have been sending false signals. Students graduate thinking they are ready for college and career, when they’re often anything but ready. National higher education remediation rates tell the grim truth:

  • A full 51.7% of students entering a two-year college enroll in remediation.
  • Only 22.3% of those students complete remediation and associated college-level courses in two years.
  • A mere 9.5% graduate from a two-year college within three years.[1]

By graduating ill-prepared students, our current system forces families and taxpayers to pay twice to remediate the inadequacies of their K-12 education. While this system propagates a tragic loss of resources, there is another way.

  • New Hampshire eliminated seat-time as a proxy for progress and is transitioning to a competency-based system.
  • Maine passed legislation in 2012 outlining the timeline for the transition to proficiency based diplomas.
  • Idaho passed legislation this year making clear the state’s goal to transition to a mastery-based system.

The common theme among these states is the desire for a system of education that will ensure students advance once they have demonstrated they understand the content, skills and application of the learning goals. So when new graduates move on to college or a career, they will do so fully confident in their capabilities.


Karla is the State Policy Director of Competency Based Learning for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University. Contact Karla at Karla (at) excelined (dot) org.