Commencement is for students who earn it

Published April 29, 2007

The Pasco County School Board shouldn't dumb down its high school standards. That is the consequence of a proposal scheduled to be considered by the board Tuesday. It would allow high school seniors to participate in commencement ceremonies even if they do not pass a state required exam and earn a diploma.

This is the ultimate social promotion. The plan boosts the self-esteem of several dozen students and their families while diminishing the accomplishments of the thousands of teenagers who did the required course work, maintained a C average and achieved a passing score on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for reading and math.

An average of 3, 100 seniors graduated from Pasco's public high schools each of the past three years, while less than 60 were barred from walking with their classes in graduation ceremonies because they received a certificate of completion, rather than a diploma.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, who favors the new policy, has said the FCAT is a single snapshot of a student's performance. We don't dispute that analogy, but the students get multiple attempts to pose for that snapshot. They have six opportunities over three years to take the 10th-grade FCAT.

The district adopted its current requirements in 1998 amid growing numbers of students who participated in commencement ceremonies, then declined afterward to complete the prerequisite work as promised.

Frustrated principals asked for the measure to hold the seniors accountable. It should not be construed as punishment. Students and parents are notified of the requirement throughout the students' senior year, and tutorial help is available.

Here's the notice currently delivered to seniors: "If you're a high school senior and you haven't passed the FCAT yet, you may feel discouraged. Now is the time for you to take your future into your own hands and do what it takes to succeed."

It's an appropriate message, encouraging students to assume responsibility.

If the proposed policy is approved by the board, the district might as well add another line to its information for seniors: "You can get to commencement by doing less."

Now, the district encourages students to remain in school and consider one of more than a half-dozen options including getting extra help and retaking the FCAT; taking an alternative assessment (ACT or SAT); or working toward a GED, which, if completed successfully, also allows a student to earn a diploma and walk at commencement. They are reasonable alternatives. Each of the past two years, more than 130 students picked the GED option and graduated with a diploma.

The Pasco County School District used to pride itself on having tougher academic standards than the state of Florida. A state budget crunch 15 years ago changed that when the School Board shortened the school day to six periods and reduced the number of credits needed for a diploma from 26 to the state standard of 24.

The new policy dilutes graduation one step further. At least one school advisory council is predictably upset about the proposed change. (See letter elsewhere on this page.) The School Board, which approved the policy on first reading in March, should rethink its stance.

Graduation and the accompanying commencement ceremony is the public school system's final recognition for satisfactory academic achievement. Students shouldn't be handed that recognition if they don't earn it.