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Understanding Graduation Requirements

Understanding Graduation Requirements
Ruth Wilson

Many parents and students ask a simple question, "What does it take to earn a high school diploma?" Unfortunately, the answer is not straight-forward. Each state issues their own regulations defining the minimum graduation requirements, and individual schools may define additional requirements. The diploma is a legal document that confirms that the student has fulfilled the state's minimum graduation requirements, and this document works in tandem with the transcript, which documents the quality of coursework by defining the specific courses each student took and the grade earned in each.

This blog attempts to unravel some of the key points related to graduation requirements, but the single most important takeaway is to get the graduation plan directly from the school who will be issuing the diploma.

Who Issues the Diploma Matters

The state-defined minimum graduation requirements are only a minimum. Individual public school districts, charter schools, and private schools may require other credits above and beyond the state minimums as well as non-credit based requirements such as community service as part of their individual graduation requirements. Even within the same public school district, some individual high schools may require a unique element of their graduates. It is entirely possible for a student to fulfill all of the state's requirements but still have deficits per their school, which makes them ineligible to graduate. This is why it is essential for the counselor or administrator from the school issuing the diploma to conduct the transcript review and agree that the student is on track or identify deficits for that particular school. Other educators can provide guidance, but the only official information can come from the school where the student intends to graduate.

Some schools also define qualitative factors, such as a minimum grade point average (gpa) or a benchmark score on an assessment. This can leave a student who has enrolled in the appropriate courses to meet graduation requirements still unable to earn a diploma if the grades, although passing, are too low. Further, grading policies are also a result of school policy and not law. Some common discrepancies are whether or not a school includes plus and minus attributes to letter grades. These subtle differences in gpa sometimes impact a student who transfers in grades from another school and finds that the final gpa falls lower than expected.

Specific Courses Matter, Too

While many subjects have graduation requirements based on the number of credits required, some states define specific courses or content that must be included in the studies. For example, in some states, the student is required to earn 4 math credits, and the students may determine the right level of study by taking any math classes to satisfy this requirement. Other states specifically define that math coursework must include both Algebra and Geometry. As a result, a student could earn 5 math credits and still be found deficit if those two courses weren't part of the 5 credits.

Electives Aren't Necessarily Electives

Most states define graduation requirements in terms of credits in specific subject areas, and an overall minimum number of credits. The difference between the required credits and the state minimums is made up through elective credits with the intent that the student has some choice. Many students mistakenly assume that an elective must fall outside of the defined categories, usually assumed to be the academic core courses. In reality, any course can count as an elective once the required credits have been earned. For example, a student who enjoys writing may take technical writing, creative writing, and another literature course in addition to the standard four years of English. Each of these additional English courses would count as an elective in terms of meeting the high school graduation credit minimums. However, a college admissions director would still consider all of the courses as English, and an asset that the student chose to take more core academic subjects beyond the graduation minimums.

Graduation Requirements are Not the Same as College Admissions Requirements

A student can be completely on track to graduate from high school but find that they are not a strong candidate for college and university, or completely ineligible for admission. Just as it is imperative that the high school counselor from the school issuing the diploma must provide official guidance on graduation requirements, the admissions director specific to the university where the student is applying is the right person to explain what coursework is necessary to be a strong admissions candidate. Individual college consultants build careers by understanding the differences and helping students navigate their options.

In addition, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) also defines credit minimums to become eligible to play sports at the college level. NCAA initial eligibility requirements are generally higher than state-level graduation requirements, so it is important to talk with the athletic director and work directly with NCAA to ensure that the student won't be excluded based on grades and coursework.

Get Any Exceptions in Writing

Some schools will issue waivers under special circumstances, or substitution of one type of credit to satisfy another category. Some are a default for that particular school, such as a PE waiver for students who participate in varsity sports or pre-defined electives like orchestra and yearbook. Although most state regulations define when and how a school may make exceptions, whether or not the school does allow this and under what conditions is completely school policy. When a student is planning for graduation based on receiving a waiver, it is imperative to get this in writing. Policies can change, or the student may transfer schools. It's up to the school who will issue the diploma to determine whether or not they would allow the same waiver to meet their graduation criteria.

Course descriptions can also become a helpful tool, especially if the school offers an integrated course as a block that counts as more than one subject. Such classes become signature attractions for many schools who build a reputation on their unique offering, but it can be hard to define if the student leaves that school. Providing documentation to the new school can save a great deal of time and help ensure that the credit is appropriately categorized by the new registrar.

Begin Planning Early

Beginning the graduation review process before senior year allows time to discuss the implications of each class and to choose the options most aligned to the student's goals.

"It is extremely advantageous to have a graduation plan set early in a student's career. By taking in all the pieces, as registrar I can help ensure a student not only meets the necessary graduation requirements but does so on the path best suited for the student's interests, talents and goals," says Marc Welc, registrar for Brightmont Academy.

Variations in graduation requirements allow individual schools to define how their academic options prepare students for life beyond high school, and provide students the ability to customize coursework to match their interests. Especially when changing schools, students should be aware that graduation requirements may differ in their new environment, but even for students who complete all 4 years in one high school, it's empowering to understand where they have choices and where they don't. The high school registrar is an invaluable resource to help students understand the graduation requirements for that individual school and to ensure that they enroll in courses that not only lead to a diploma, but to any other aspirations the student has.

Ruth Wilson is the Founder and Director of Development at Brightmont Academy. She is a certified principal and a board certified educational therapist. She has led multiple teams and served on several non-profit boards, including the Washington Branch of International Dyslexia Association. Ruth continually seeks to expand and share her educational expertise through postgraduate coursework, collaborations with other educators, and consulting and public speaking events.


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