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.