Is Kentucky handing out ‘hollow’ diplomas?

Non-readers are getting regular high school diplomas

A disturbing issue inadvertently came to light during a contentious August 14, 2012 meeting of the Kentucky Legislature’s Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee (EAARS).

The news spilled out during a sharp discussion about a regulation that would end reading of the state’s reading assessment to many students with learning disabilities.

In the process of that discussion, multiple comments from educators and legislators revealed that students with learning disabilities in Kentucky who basically cannot read are being given regular – not alternative – high school diplomas.

That’s the same class of diploma now awarded to all the students who successfully complete the normal, full course of study – which certainly includes learning to read (Note: the Commonwealth Diploma was recently discontinued).

As a consequence of this policy for learning disabled students, an employer may not be able to tell if a student can read just by checking for a high school diploma.


Since the EAARS meeting, I’ve discussed this diploma policy with several members of the business community and several education observers. None were aware that non-readers can be awarded a regular high school diploma, but the EAARS testimony made it clear that schools know and practice this policy.

This revelation about what might actually stand behind a regular diploma in this state certainly magnifies concerns the State Journal editorialized several days ago regarding diploma mills in Kentucky. Those concerns now become much more serious.

By the way, during the EAARS meeting defenders of the non-readers getting regular diplomas policy said the learning disabled students need those diplomas to get jobs.

I’m not sure that is a realistic argument.

It’s no secret that the regular high school credential already suffers credibility issues. Many employers know better than to take it at face value.

Moreover, employers have more reasons today than ever before to want employees who can read.

For one thing, jobs are getting more technical. Operating and maintaining equipment requires the ability to read and understand all sorts of manuals and instructions.

Furthermore, in many businesses today all employees need to read, understand and sometimes even sign off on employer policies regarding all sorts of issues such as safety, OSHA compliance and liability concerns. Even the cleaning staff can expose a business to liability issues if they leave a wet floor without a warning sign or use a ladder improperly.

To sum this up, diploma or not, I suspect that a non-reader faces a lot more challenges in getting hired today than in the past. And, it’s not very difficult for employers to check for basic reading skills in job applicants. Diploma or not, a non-reader isn’t likely to be able to hide that disability.

So far, I have not heard from an employer who knows it is actually official policy to allow certain non-readers to graduate with a regular high school credential in Kentucky. The fact that this is actually official policy may sharpen employer resolve not to rely on a diploma as evidence of accomplishment.

Bottom Line: Fooling parents, and maybe some legislators, into thinking the award of a regular diploma to a non-reader solves future employment problems strikes me as unrealistic.

I wonder if anyone has researched how non-readers with regular diplomas actually fare in the world. Somehow, I suspect that the lives of many of these young adults who were deprived of the opportunity to learn to read are indeed rather hollow.

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