Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Competency Testing - Exit Options for High School Graduation

Every year, high school students aim to meet graduation requirements. The State Board of Education, under state law, sets these standards. Different states have different rules, but most have similar guidelines. Public education is all about giving students the educational opportunity to succeed.

In our school system, the Department of Education aims at ensuring academic achievement. To do this, it often uses competency testing in certain subject areas. These subjects include English language arts, math, science, and social studies. This competency testing measures each student's skills at each grade level. The state certifies that its students have learned the minimum necessary skills by issuing diplomas. Many students then show this to employers to prove they are fit to work.

Each state has its own requirements for diplomas, so be sure to check with your local school board to learn the options for students in your district. Below are the commonly available diplomas and their significance.

Standard Diploma

In most states, to graduate from a public school students need to get a standard diploma. Each state offers a standard diploma to students who have met the regular requirements for graduation. These requirements often include:

  • Achieving a minimum attendance requirement.
  • A minimum amount of course time measured in "Carnegie Units" and referred to as credits. These course credits only count toward a diploma if students pass their courses.
  •  Passing all the necessary end-of-course exams in states that offer competency testing. Receiving a passing score is, in theory, an indication the student is ready for higher education or jobs.

Honors diplomas are variations of standard diplomas. Student achievers might complete extra elective courses or independent studies to receive honors. Such diplomas might also show accelerated or advanced coursework.

Exit Examination

In some states, high school students must pass a statewide exit examination. These exit exams may be offered at the end of the school year to check if the student is ready to graduate based on student performance on the test. The assessment system may test subject areas like English language arts and math.

A passing score shows a student has met performance standards. The State Board of Education sets these academic standards. Some critics argue that an exit examination can increase dropout rates. Supporters say it ensures academic achievement and prepares students for life beyond high school.

Individual Education Plan (IEP) Diploma

Some learners need special attention in schools. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) supports these students. Under this law, students might receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP). This plan helps these students learn at their own pace. There may be an alternate assessment system used to check these students' academic achievement.

In some districts, these may be called modified or alternative diplomas. These are used instead of standard competency testing in high school exams. Students in special education programs may have alternate options for earning a high school diploma. This may be through the completion of their IEP. Some states allow modified coursework to count as standard coursework. At these schools, students earn a standard diploma upon graduation.

Other states offer a certificate of attainment. Others offer special certificates of completion. These certificates indicate the student's fulfillment of special criteria for graduation. Typically, these kinds of diplomas are only available to certain students. These students may have disabilities that prevent them from completing a standard curriculum.

Special Considerations for English Learners

English learners have unique challenges in schools. The Department of Education offers these students special programs. These programs accommodate their learning upon enrollment. These students might receive other accommodations, too. 

For example, English language learners (ELLs) can receive more time to complete tests. They may receive certain waivers or exemptions if they have recently arrived in the country, or if they may take certain tests in their native language. This helps ensure these students get the same educational opportunities as everyone else. The goal is to ensure these students meet the grade level standards for certain subjects.

Navigating the path to graduation for ELLs can be challenging. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was a landmark piece of legislation. NCLB brought attention to various student groups, including ELLs. Under NCLB, schools are held accountable for the academic progress of all students.

Many school programs have been developed in response to these mandates. These programs offer specialized instruction tailored to the needs of ELLs. There might be special courses for ELL populations. These programs may be English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, or they may be English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses. Often, credits from these courses can count toward graduation requirements.

It's important to take note of the shift towards standards-based education and how it relates to ELLs. This means ELLs must meet the same academic standards as their English-proficient peers. These students must master academic content while also developing English language proficiency. Many schools offer after-school tutoring or summer classes to help these students. These programs help students improve their academic performance and meet graduation requirements.

Occupational Diploma

Not all students plan to go to college. Some want to go into the workforce right after high school. For these students, an occupational diploma is a good choice. This diploma focuses on technical education. In these programs, students learn skills they can use in jobs right away.

These diplomas teach students a trade along with basic academic skills. These trades may include auto mechanics and metal fabrication. They may also include culinary skills, carpentry, or any other kind of skill.

The school district works with local businesses to create these programs. Areas like civics and physical education are still important, but the student's occupational diploma is usually focused on technical skills.

General Educational Diploma (G.E.D.)

Sometimes, life gets in the way of school. Some students drop out before finishing high school. These students may choose to seek a G.E.D. These initials can stand for different words in different states. In some states, it means General Equivalency Degree. In others, it means General Education Development (test), or General Educational Diploma. Regardless of its name, the underlying concept of G.E.D.s remains the same.

The state offers a test that covers the skills required for high school graduation. Students study for this test. They might enroll in adult education classes. If they pass, they get a degree that is equal to a high school diploma. For more information, see FindLaw's sections on School Curriculum Basics and Education Options.

Getting Legal Help

Navigating the complexities of high school graduation and graduation requirements can be challenging. Suppose you have a dispute about graduation requirements for you or your child. Maybe there is a misunderstanding about IDEA and IEPs. Perhaps there are challenges with school standards. If you are facing any of these legal hurdles, they can be obstacles in the way of academic success.

Hiring a lawyer can make a huge difference. A knowledgeable legal expert can provide clarity on state laws. They can advocate for a student's rights. They can also help ensure every learner receives the educational opportunities they deserve. If you or your child face obstacles on the path to graduation, consider seeking legal help.

Speak to an experienced educational lawyer about your legal problem today.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options