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What is the Difference Between a Certificate of Completion and a High School Diploma?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Students who successfully complete high school in the United States typically receive one of two distinct credentials: a diploma, which signifies that all graduation requirements were met; or a certificate of completion, which represents that a student met all course requirements, but fell short in some other respect. The most common reason a student may receive a certificate instead of a diploma is if he or she fails a state high school competency exam. Repeating courses multiple times in order to pass may also lead to a certificate of completion in certain jurisdictions.

Typical Diploma Requirements

The vast majority of U.S. high school graduates receive diplomas, usually at their graduation ceremonies. Precise diploma requirements vary from place to place, but generally include successful passage of all required courses, matched with demonstrated competency in “basic high school skills.”

States usually have the power to determine their own required basic skills, but the goal of skills assessments are the same nationwide: that is, to ensure that high school graduates have the same core aptitudes. Subjects like national and world history, math skills, and scientific knowledge may be taught differently in different places, but students everywhere should have the same general understanding.

State Competency Exams

Many states assess student skills by administering a standardized competency exam to high school seniors. Students are usually required to receive a passing score on this test in order to earn a diploma. Doing well in classes is therefore only part of the equation: students must also prove that their grades are backed by actual knowledge.

What a Certificate Means

Students who fail their state’s competency exam but have otherwise met their school’s graduation requirements are typically awarded a certificate of completion. The certificate establishes that the student did, in fact, complete high school. Recipients are usually able to participate in graduation ceremonies, and are considered school alumni. The key difference is that the state — a government entity — does not recognize them as possessing high school level knowledge.

Why Students Fail Competency Exams

States do not typically design their competency exams to be excessively difficult, and students are not expected to spend time studying for them. Rather, the tests are designed to be a diagnostic measure of general competencies that students should possess inherently, without having to devote special time to study. Most of the people who fail these exams have learning disabilities that prevent them from retaining or recalling information previously learned.

In order to comply with U.S. law, competency exams must make reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities. Most of the time, these accommodations have to do with time allowances, font size, and testing setting. Students are not usually allowed to get clarification on questions, or ask for additional guidance. It is often the case that students with learning impairments who were able to do well in high school classes with one-on-one help from teachers are not able to succeed on uniform tests.

Other Reasons for a Certificate

In some school districts, certificates are also awarded to students who have repeatedly failed required courses. Taking an essential chemistry class three, four, or five times is sometimes permitted, but may not always lead to a diploma. This is especially true in states that do not administer competency exams. In these states, the ability to pass a course on the first try is often seen as a mark of basic competence.

Advancement and Opportunity Differences

A certificate of completion and a diploma are not equivalent when it comes to job eligibility. Students who have only earned a certificate do not usually qualify for jobs that require a high school diploma, for instance. Certificate-holders are also not usually eligible to matriculate into colleges or universities. Even trade schools and most community colleges require actual diplomas.

How to Turn a Certificate into a Diploma

All is not lost for students with completion certificates, however. Some states will allow certificate-holders to retake competency exams after a certain amount of time has passed. Students must often attend special courses or meet with state-sponsored counselors in order to qualify for a re-take. The timing varies from place to place, but most of the time, exams can be retaken any time between one year after the first failure and the test-taker’s 22nd birthday. The exam can typically be retaken only once or twice, and success earns a general diploma issued by the state — not a high school-specific document.

Another alternative is the General Educational Development test, or GED. The GED is a national high school equivalency exam that gives students the opportunity to earn their diplomas by proving their basic knowledge. This exam has a very different format from most state competency exams, and is open both to students who, like certificate holders, have actually finished high school, and students who have dropped or failed out. Success on the GED earns students a high school equivalency degree. While not precisely a diploma, this document is designed to work in exactly the same way for job and college purposes.

PracticalAdultInsights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PracticalAdultInsights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon993862 — On Dec 22, 2015

I been out of school since 2009. I failed my reading and math sol in the state of Virginia certificate of completion. I lost my aunt in 2011 and my mom in 2013 from cancer. I don't have so much family living. I want to have kids but it wont work with out a education. I don't have kids yet. I am 24 , nearly 25 years old and I'm working on my G.E.D. I will pass it. God will help me. I need this.

Don't give up.

By anon970476 — On Sep 18, 2014

The sad truth of this world is that you actually don't get an A for effort. You "get an A" for winning.

So very many children with disabilities, who have worked and striven desperately to do what ordinary children can do so easily, end up failing in the end. I was lucky enough that I knew how to handle tests and got my high school diploma. Along with a great deal more later on. But most cannot work up the indomitable Will to fight their own minds or have it but could never have won in the first place.

People without psychosocial disabilities cannot conceive of what "fighting with one's own mind" even feels like. If it were known exactly how much punishment these kids put themselves through to do anything, if there were a way to prove the inner strength of your children...Perhaps we would live in a better world.

But we do not live in that world.

By anon934966 — On Feb 23, 2014

A diploma doesn't mean anything. I graduated with honors and can't get a job and a decent job is out of the equation. This economy is racist jobs. They chose quantity over quality and electronic applications are crap and a waste of time.

Everything is being made easier so that the "failures" in life can succeed and those who want to try can fail. I sympathize with those of you who have certificates. You didn't give up. I earned a diploma because I didn't give up, and for that, we are in the same boat, while those who gave up were rewarded.

I have job promises. I've been told by everyone the job is mine, yet when I go to accept it, it's not there. This is ridiculous. I can't afford college, but I'm going. But what are the odds of succeeding after college?

By anon926738 — On Jan 20, 2014

Wow, I'm amazed at the comments and post left by hundreds of people who are in the same position I am I am about to be 22 years old and have been trying to pass the ACT since I graduated as a senior in high school. I received a Certificate of Completion also, but for some reason, I cannot pass the ACT reading.

I've paid so much money for tutoring and as soon as I get in front of that test, I blank out and feel overwhelmed. All I want to do is make my mother and grandmother (who passed away) happy.

I don't know what else to do. I think it's a waste of time to take my GED if I have all my HS credits already. It's a new year. I just want to live out my dreams and help others and change the world.

By anon925047 — On Jan 09, 2014

I used my Certificate of Completion to wipe my butt! That was the only useful thing that could be done with it. God knows it wasn't good for anything else!

By Lilgmom — On Sep 30, 2013

I graduated in 2005 with a high school certificate since I didn't pass the reading portion of the FCAT (in Florida), which is required to pass in order to obtain a high school diploma. I got all my other requirements. Now, eight years later, I want to go to college and am trying to find out how to obtain my high school diploma. A guidance counselor told me if I take the ACT and get a higher score on reading, I will be able to get my diploma. Is that true? Has anybody else done this? Please help.

By anon349159 — On Sep 23, 2013

I got a certificate of completion and I'm managing to have a job/go to college and receive FAFSA and Cal-Grants. My downfall was math as well.

By anon348905 — On Sep 21, 2013

I received an completion certificate of graduation in 1996. I gave birth to my now 19 year old daughter at age 17 1994. I finished high school, but graduated with a certificate of completion years ago 1996. It was 21 credits. Now you must have 24 or 25 credits. What can I do? It's hard without a diploma or GED.

By anon338415 — On Jun 13, 2013

My son went 12 years to receive a certificate of completion form. He had a memory issue at birth. Now he can't get a job. But when he was 16, he worked bagging groceries and stocking at the food store. He has two children and cannot get a decent position which would allow him to support his family. I've cried myself to sleep many times because he's tried so hard. Is there a decent place to get a job?

By anon338088 — On Jun 10, 2013

I have also been struggling for four years now after high school. I've taken the ACT test again and again. I live on my own and I've been working in seasonal jobs just to get somewhere. I work at places where they need people and it's all I have. It's hard having to do this even though I'm doing what I want to do as a job.

I see people and friends who go on and start from the same places who are now in a bigger place while I'm in the same place. It's unfair.

I tried so freaking hard in high school. All I ever wanted to do in life is just help people and at this point I can't even help myself. It makes me feel like a failure.

I just want to succeed and make a difference. I've done so much better than the people who got their degrees in the same career I want to be in. Most are lazy and not appreciative and get so far ahead. The one thing holding me back is this one reading test to make my life change.

By anon292325 — On Sep 19, 2012

Does anyone not see the flaws here? Simplify what this is saying. We are rewarding the failures and drop outs with a GED certificate that work the same as a diploma for most intents and purposes. The students who stick it out and try to pass the tests and meet all of the other requirements fall short and get a certificate which basically can be used for nothing more than toilet paper, but they get to walk the stage and be alumni for their efforts. What a joke.

By anon278880 — On Jul 09, 2012

I'm 20, and I'll be 21 this November. I got all my high school credits and good grades, and also passed all but one of my proficiency exams, which was math and was given the certificate of completion. Am I still eligible for a high school diploma at this age? I only had the math proficiency exam to complete. Will I still be able to take it?

By anon277332 — On Jun 29, 2012

I am about to become a fifth-year senior in the fall and I haven't passed all the sections of the Georgia high school graduation test (At first I failed all of it, but two standardized test scores replaced the english and social studies scores I had).

So, I had to retake the science and math parts of it four times! The last time I passed the science, but failed the math. I was told that I came close to passing math last time.

Anyway, I've thought of dropping out several times, but after reading this article, I may just get a GED.

By anon274666 — On Jun 12, 2012

In Las Vegas you get four years to pass the proficiency exams, and are given four years of help if you just go and ask for it for the subjects you're lacking. So if you still haven't passed, that's basically all on you. Stop whining and get your degree or GED and you can still continue on with the path in college that you want.

By anon267961 — On May 11, 2012

I am furious! We moved from New York last year to South Carolina and my boy was put into a contained classroom because his reading and math skills are at a fifth grade level. He's in eighth grade and just made the honor roll they say with modified!

He's about to enter ninth grade in the fall and I was just informed he will be taking classes for life skills and technical classes. He still goes out for ninth grade social studies and biology. They told me he won't get a diploma in this state. He is a very gifted artist and he wants to go on to college in the arts. He wants more than anything to make comic books. He is incredible. What do we do?

Is it just the state of South Carolina, or if we went back to New York or another state would he be able to get a diploma? Can anyone give me some answers?

By anon266450 — On May 05, 2012

I failed the reading, even though I did amazing on everything else. Now I can't graduate. This stinks. Why do they do this to us? I work so hard in everything I do, but I have eye problems that make reading hard and so I failed. This stinks. Does the other thing have any advantage to it? Or is it just a piece of paper?

By anon262665 — On Apr 20, 2012

What gets me is I was allowed in the military, and did seven years as an air traffic controller while I was in.

I went to one college and then went to transfer to another, and at that point I was refused the ability to go. The college told me I never graduated from high school. I had my certificate of eligibility in my hand, which I was told by my high school that is what they gave out. The school told me that was a diploma. They didn't mention that I didn't really graduate and it would hurt me in the future.

What gets me the most is how can I get in the military and stay in until I want to leave and go to college without graduating. It was when I transferred to another college when I was declined because of this. I am just glad that fraud is allowed in public schools and nowhere else.

By anon256632 — On Mar 22, 2012

I am finishing my first year in college and I am majoring in biology (All my life I've wanted to be a doctor because I want to help people a lot, especially in other countries).

I am not the brightest when it comes to tests, but in all the other subjects I do well. I am struggling in college biology exams and my adviser is basically saying I'm a failure. Just because I am not good at test taking doesn't mean I don't know the subject. I understand everything that is being taught in the lecture, but when it comes to tests, I don't do well. It doesn't matter how hard I tried.

Because of this, I feel like my dreams are being crushed in front of me and it stops me from accomplishing my dream. I think it's really unfair for colleges to judge a student by how well they do on exams because there are a lot of doctors and people with PhD degrees who were not the brightest when it came to exams, but they were smart enough to get a high degree.

I just think that colleges should do something about this because a lot of smart students are being left behind because they didn't or couldn'the well on exams.

By anon246849 — On Feb 11, 2012

I just took the ACT test and I know I failed. My name is Chris. I feel like a complete failure. I can't pass the Florida FCAT test. I got amazing results on my writing and average on my math. I just can't pass the reading. I even passed the college PERT reading test. I have a good job at my age. I make 10 grand a year.

I got offered a pharmacist tech job at where I work, but I'm scared I won't be able to have it because of not passing one test to get my diploma. I'm so aggravated about this. I just want to be successful in life and this might be the thing that ruins it all.

By anon242959 — On Jan 25, 2012

I think it is an absolute disgrace to see kids on IEP's learn, struggle, put their hearts and souls into learning in their own unique way of learning. They finish their work, do exactly what they need to do and then they don't get a diploma - an absolute disgrace. Our government should do something about this situation before they see these unique, good, well behaved, hard learning children on the streets! It's time this country did something right for a change.

By anon176771 — On May 16, 2011

I'm a senior in high school and i have all my credits.

i didn't pass my math proficiency test and i think is wrong how you go to high school for four years and put in work and just for one stupid test which i only missed by two questions and i don't get a real diploma.

By anon167250 — On Apr 11, 2011

In Oregon, it's called a modified diploma. It's not a real diploma. If you want to go to college, you still have to get a G.E.D, and good luck on finding a job as most will not hire a person without one. You can also kiss any funding for college goodbye or walking with the graduation class.

By anon164781 — On Apr 02, 2011

A "Certificate of completion" should really be called a "Certificate of Failure". It is a worthless piece of paper and a ticket to poverty!

By anon152943 — On Feb 15, 2011

I never like the federal government messing up kids future, that is why a lot of them went to work instead of completing the examination because the teachers are so mean and nothing but frauds.

By anon127343 — On Nov 16, 2010

well i just graduated and only got a certificate of high school achievement. i feel like i will be nothing in this life. thanks canadian school division.

By anon117279 — On Oct 09, 2010

i was in special ed in high school. i had problems paying attention in class. i didn't even graduate with my class but i did graduate on time through independent study and certificate of completion. I never say it though.

By anon114512 — On Sep 28, 2010

I didn't pass CAHSEE Math (aced the Language Arts the first try) and was never told that I could be held back an extra year up until the age of 22 until or unless I managed to pass the CAHSEE and Graduate. Instead of offering me my legally-binding rights to choose from California's nine different approaches to getting my Diploma, I was instead swept under the carpet with this "Certificate" and left uninformed I had other choices.

They told me it was exactly the same as a diploma and that it wouldn't negatively impact getting employed or else going to college or otherwise being eligible for FAFSA and Cal-Grant.

Well guess what? I couldn't figure out why that in the last four years since my "graduation" I hadn't been able to find work, other than UPS during their peak season at just 1K a year. Now I know.

Because of this I was forced out of community college because they said I lied about "graduating", when I didn't and FAFSA and Cal-Grant mailed me a letter of rejection without a reason. It all makes sense to me now.

I had been intending to become an Allopathic M.D. because I am so good at and intrigued by medicine and science in general (believe it or not, there is actually only basic math in real-practice of most Doctors), but now that's impossible because it's been four years of having been seemingly "dropped out" when I thought I has graduated (that's what they told me) and that looks damning on med school applications!

CAHSEE is doing nothing else but creating poverty. a whole generation of beggars who will leech off of the government and break an already strapped-for-cash state!

Way to go, government. Who are the morons? Not us!

By anon109492 — On Sep 07, 2010

I worked so hard in high school. I was a cheerleader and a really good student, always went to class and the first two years I took the test they told us it didn't matter so i guessed but my senior year they said we couldn't graduate without passing. i didn't pass (math) by 1/2 a point. now I'm 21 and I feel like I'm being held back. what they're doing isn't fair.

By anon76978 — On Apr 12, 2010

this is the most difficult thing i had ever had to endure. i did not pass the state exam by one point and for that, was unable to get my diploma. It doesn't help if the state exam keeps getting higher in the amount you need to pass also.

By anon60164 — On Jan 12, 2010

i totally agree, anon21062. it's not right. there should be some kind of sympathy given to those who have actually tried and still did not pass the exit exam. there are plenty of people who want to be someone and do good things with their lives yet they can't because of this exit exam. Senior students have enough to worry about so why put more pressure on them? i hate it and will do anything to help stop it!

By amypollick — On Oct 10, 2009

Anon48169: It is impossible to say whether a diploma from Bangladesh is as "good" as one from the USA. Schools are so different. It all depends on the quality of instruction. One high school diploma is as credible as the other, however, and a high school education is just that. Also, states vary in the US in what they require for a diploma. A very basic outline would probably require: 4 years of English grammar and literature; 4 years of science; 4 years of mathematics; 4 years of social sciences (like history); and other electives. This is by no means a complete list, but does cover the least number of subjects that most states would require to confer a high school diploma.

By anon48169 — On Oct 10, 2009

I am Bangladeshi student. I want to know about the USA (American) high school diploma and the Bangladeshi three years diploma (Which is done after completing the S.S.C.) Are they the same quality?

By anon35019 — On Jul 01, 2009

Thank you for this article. My sister was special ed and passed four years of high school but failed the exit exam (english portion). We have found that the community/trade college is the way to go. That way she can take the remedial classes and build her way up to transfer to a 4 year. A transfer student does not need to show high school diplomas.

By anon21062 — On Nov 09, 2008

Many community colleges and trade schools do not accept students with certificates of completion? So what type of jobs does my daughter (Sp. Ed. but has passed all of her high school classes and not the exit exam) have to look forward to? A minimum wage job at some fast food joint? A janitor? Oh wait all those jobs are taken by illegal immigrants. The government is messing with my daughter's future. I hope that she will someday be able to provide for herself and not end up in the streets!

By anon13164 — On May 20, 2008

I have a paper to write on this subject. It really helped. thanx.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PracticalAdultInsights contributor,...
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