New law enticing few locally to try for retroactive high school diploma

Fewer than 100 people have filed petitions with the Berkeley, Charleston or Dorchester 2 school districts to receive a retroactive diploma under a new state law known as Act 155.

A new state law giving some high school graduates who failed a proficiency test a second shot at a diploma hasn't created a stampede locally for the coveted piece of paper.

Since Gov. Nikki Haley signed Act 155 into law in April, fewer than 100 people from the Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester 2 school districts have applied to retroactively receive a high school diploma.

The act eliminated the state's high school exit exam, known as HSAP, the High School Assessment Program, which tested for math and English language proficiency. Students who didn't pass the exam but otherwise met graduation requirements received a certificate of completion in lieu of a diploma.

Students from the class of 1990 through the class of 2014 who were denied a diploma solely for failing the exit exam may petition their local school districts to receive a diploma as part of the new law, which includes students who failed an earlier exam called the BSAP, or Basic Skills Assessment Program. Eligible students must have completed all other graduation requirements and on a standard diploma track. The deadline to apply is Dec. 31, 2015.

It's unclear how many former students from the three counties could be eligible to receive a retroactive diploma. But if recent data from Berkeley County is any indication, the number could be low. Patricia Weeg, director of counseling services for the Berkeley County School District, said on average the Berkeley County School District has 13 students per year who receive certificates. From 2009 to 2013, a total of 53 Berkeley students received certificates instead of diplomas.

Amy Neloms, director of K-12 guidance and counseling for Charleston County schools, said response could be low in part because students, especially older students, may have found another path to move forward in their education.

"Some may have gone on to adult education programs, and if they did complete the HSAP or the BSAP through adult education then they would have earned their high school diploma," Neloms said. "I've even heard of some individuals seeking online schools to try to accomplish that goal."

Charleston County School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said she has only heard from two former students interested in applying to receive a diploma through the new law. Coats supports the elimination of the exit exam and thinks providing a retroactive path for a diploma is the right thing to do.

"I think the state made the correct decision on this issue," she said. "If students in between those dates did not get a diploma based solely on the exit exam, how does that person go to an employer, a college, whatever and say, 'I promise I did all the work to earn a diploma. ... I just don't have one because of the year I was born.'"

Not having a diploma can be financially costly. Adults without a high school diploma earn about $10,000 less annually than those with a diploma, whose mean annual earnings are $30,627, according to census data.

The new law will require 11th-graders to take a work readiness and college readiness tests. The ACT's WorkKeys test, a work-skills test, will assess students in applied mathematics, reading for information and locating information. The college readiness test will likely be either the ACT or the SAT college-entrance exam. The state currently has a request for proposals for those tests. Scores on the new tests will not be tied to receiving a high school diploma.

Sean Alford, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Dorchester District 2, said the feedback he's received from former students has been positive.

"I think everyone is really excited about being able to apply for a diploma," Alford said.

One issue that has come up, Alford said, is confusion about who qualifies. He stressed that students seeking a diploma under Act 155 still must have earned the required credits for graduation. Students must also have been on a standard diploma track.

Weeg said there's been some confusion about who qualifies in Berkeley County, too, where four students who have applied weren't eligible.

"We've had one or two students who haven't met the requirements because they're missing a course," she said. "We've been referring them to our adult education program to see if there's something they can do like taking one class to work on getting the diploma that way."

It's too early to know the benefits, if any, of receiving a retroactive diploma.

"We're waiting to see what the diplomas will actually say," Alford said, noting that it could appear different than a standard diploma.

Transcripts for students who receive a diploma under the new law will not be altered, Alford said. That means records will still show students did not pass the exit exam and received a certificate of completion instead of a diploma. A letter will be added to student records saying students were awarded a diploma through Act 155.

Whether a retroactive diploma will help former high school students move forward in their education remains to be seen. It depends in part on how much weight colleges give to the specially issued diploma.

"I don't think we know how much it will help until we start hearing the stories from those adults," Weeg said. "I hope it does open up more opportunities for them."

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at