What is the value of a high school diploma? By some measures, it can mean a lifetime earning potential nearly twice that of someone who dropped out.
It goes beyond that, however. A high school diploma represents a level of achievement that ought to demonstrate certain skills and a work ethic. It implies a basic ability to read and write, as well as an understanding of how the world works and how someone can go about becoming a contributing member of society.
Last week, the Utah State Office of Education reported that 80 percent of the high school class of 2008 had passed the state's basic skills test. That means they will receive a regular diploma. Those who didn't pass but who passed the appropriate courses will be given a diploma that indicates they failed the test.
This has reignited discussions among lawmakers over whether, instead, the failing students should not be given a diploma at all.
Eighty percent is an impressive pass rate. And yet, it should be noted that a report in this newspaper last year said Utah has the highest graduation rate among the 50 states, a rate that was 83.8 percent in 2004.
The obvious question should be, how on earth could high schools qualify students for graduation if they don't have the skills necessary to pass the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test? How could a student pass courses of instruction without having achieved such a minimal level of learning?
Given the statistics, the number of students falling into this category appears small. But, allowing for some statistical variation based on how data are gathered, it ought to be close to zero.
The truth is few if any potential employers ever ask whether someone passed the skills test. But not having a high school diploma would indeed make a difference.
People who worry that not giving failing students a diploma might increase the state's dropout rate have a misplaced focus. The state should be worried about producing students who can contribute to society, not about its graduation rate.
Students are given five chances to pass the test, starting their sophomore year. The requirements hardly seem onerous, but the results do demonstrate a basic level of learning.
Colleges have their own ways to screen students for admission, of course. You can't fake your way through life. Kids who don't take high school seriously quickly learn they are cheating only themselves. By one measure, in a study published on EducationAtlas.com, high school dropouts earned $18,900 per year on average, compared to $25,900 for graduates, $45,400 for college graduates and $99,300 for people with professional degrees.
Utah's basic skills test, administered with the threat of not earning a diploma, would be one way to make disinterested students, and their teachers, more focused on the problem.