Tiered Diplomas Abandoned in Rhode Island

Deborah Gist (AP)

Advocates for low-income, minority students and students with special needs, including the Rhode Island Disability Law Center and The Autism Project of Rhode Island scored a major victory in Providence last week when Education Commissioner Deborah Gist announced she would scrap a plan for a three-tiered high school diploma system tied to standardized test scores. 

The plan called for students with high scores to receive an “Honors’’ diploma, those with average scores to earn a “Regents’’ diploma, and ones who score “partially proficient’’ to be granted a basic Rhode Island diploma. Children who fail the test would have the opportunity to take it again. If they fail a second time, but other requirements are achieved, they could still graduate with a certificate.

Opponents claimed the proposal created a state-sanctioned caste system that would stigmatize struggling students and haunt them when seeking future employment or college admission. Based on recent test scores, they countered that almost all students who were poor, minorities, had disabilities, or were learning English would get the lowest tier diploma, if they even got one at all. 

Currently, a student is required only to take the standardized test to qualify for a diploma, receiving one regardless of their score.

Prior to abandoning the proposal, Commissioner Gist took to the opinion pages of state newspapers to expound upon the virtues of the tiered system for honoring excellence. But hundreds of students, teachers and leaders turned out at public hearings in January to fiercely oppose their opposition.

When at the end of the meeting, Gist acquiesced to public will, the executive director of The Autism Project thanked her for acknowledging that "just as we don’t all learn the same, we don’t all test the same.” 

Commissioner Gist stated that children with special needs, limited English skills or who had recent traumatic events in their lives such as a house fire or the death of a parent should be given modifications and accommodations on future standardized tests and the results of those tests would not be tied to diplomas.

While it’s important to have high standards for students in our school systems, the correct decision was made in scrapping this program. There are plenty of other ways students can be acknowledged for their achievements, including SAT and ACT scores, president’s lists and grade point averages. This proposal was superfluous and unnecessary and would have lead to further stigmatization, which is something children with autism and other special needs already have to contend with on a regular basis. 

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