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© 2004. Alessa Giampaolo Keener
There's the pomp. There's the circumstance. And, then there's the piece of paper signifying a rite of passage. We call it a diploma, a legal document that settles the question about the ubiquitous permanent, school record.
With a diploma in hand, a young person may step forward and confidently say he or she has graduated from high school. A diploma serves as an admission ticket into the world of work and higher education. Without it, one seemingly would be destined to a long life of dead ends.
As defined by law, students must meet five requirements to receive a Maryland State diploma from their local public school. First, they must attend school for a minimum number of days. They must also earn a minimum of 21 credits and complete their community service requirement. Effective 2001, students in Maryland must also take four high school assessment (HSA) exams, in English, algebra, government and biology. Currently, high schoolers are not required to pass the exam, although their test scores are included on their transcripts.
"A diploma means that you have completed a minimum requirement of the state and district level work," explains Dr. Gwen Grant, executive director of Baltimore County Public School's Department of Secondary Programs.
Homeschoolers and students attending non-public schools do not receive Maryland high school diplomas, however. Non-public schools clearly have the right to issue their own diploma to students meeting the school's graduation requirements developed in accordance with state law. Homeschoolers, however, while under the oversight of local school boards, fall into a gray area when it comes to receiving diplomas.
The question remains then, do homeschoolers need a diploma to continue with a higher education?
"It's a diploma. It doesn't tell us anything," says Carol McDaniel, assistant director of Admissions for Villa Julie College. "The final, official high school transcript tells us that the student has completed high school."
Lori Smith-Watson, assistant director of Admissions for University of Maryland, Baltimore County, offers a different perspective. "When we don't see a diploma from a non-traditional student, UMBC recommends [the General Educational Development (GED) Tests], but a GED is not required," she says.
Smith-Watson adds that UMBC is currently developing a more formulaic admission process for homeschoolers.
Diane Drake, director of Admissions for the Catonsville campus of Community College of Baltimore County, sees a lot of homeschoolers coming to her school while still in high school. However, homeschool graduates looking to enroll full-time face the same admission process as traditionally schooled students.
"We need to have a transcript on file, but test results are most important," Drake explains. Students scoring at least a 550 on either the math or verbal portion of the SAT can begin taking classes. All other students must take a placement test to determine the level of courses at which they may begin.
Mark Jacque, associate director of Admissions for Towson University echoes the importance of test scores in the admissions process. "A student in one school district may be getting straight As but could be failing in other districts. For homeschoolers, we rely on test scores to validate their transcript."
Yet, a little-known regulation in Maryland law seemingly ups the ante for having a diploma on hand if a homeschooler or a student from a non-accredited, non-public high school wants to attend a public college. According to state regulations, a student must be a graduate from an accredited high school or have a high school equivalency diploma.
However, another regulation provides a caveat to that rule.
Dr. Michael Kiphart, acting assistant secretary for Planning and Academic Affairs for the Maryland Higher Education Commission explains, "Institutions are free to admit students without diplomas according to the exceptions found in COMAR [or, the Code of Maryland Regulations]."
Public colleges can waive the diploma requirement if students provide evidence of achievement by way of test scores or other means.
Wendy Bush, executive director of the New Creation Academy homeschool umbrella group and a member of the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admissions Counseling and the Pennsylvania Association for College Admissions Counseling, works with several homeschoolers every year in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
"I have never had a student encounter any difficulty in admission to post-secondary education, employment or military enlistment due to not having a state-issued diploma. The diploma is really a non-issue today because homeschoolers have proven themselves academically in many other ways."
A Diploma Afterall
Still, some families want to avoid any hassles, so they look for other options in obtaining a diploma. One choice is for the homeschooled child to take the GED. The GED offers an alternate method for obtaining a Maryland high school diploma for teenagers over 16 who have not attended school for at least three months. While some families feel stigmatized by the possible notion that their child failed to finish high school, others take a more practical stance and view the GED simply as a gateway to the future.
Another option is for a homeschool student to enroll in public school for all or part of his or her high school years. This guarantees a diploma only if the student meets the minimum graduation requirements.
However, some families anticipating a potential high school enrollment worry about the high school assessment exam requirement. Just to be safe, they have their child take the HSA tests as he or she completes the required courses at home.
Gary Heath, assistant superintendent of the State Department of Education's Division Planning, Results and Information Management, reassures homeschool parents that taking the high school assessments is not currently necessary.
"If a school system accepts a transfer student or homeschool student's evidence that he or she has earned a credit(s) for completing a HSA-aligned course, then that student does not have to take a HSA test."
Heath reminds parents that these tests are end-of-course assessments. Passing grades on the HSAs are not currently required of any student.
To have or not to have an official diploma remains a personal choice for families. New Creation Academy's Bush notes, though, "With the breadth of schools that I work with, I'm seeing that homeschoolers are not experiencing any significant problems with not having a diploma."
December 14, 2017