High school students Dustin Bowen and Emerald Smith believe the state’s new graduation rules encourage mediocrity.

“I think it promotes children to procrastinate and slack off,” said Bowen.

“I don’t think it is fair to those who have earned their diplomas,” said Smith. “The diploma will equal nothing if laws like this keep being passed.”

The two Tanner High School juniors are protesting the rule change passed last week by the state Legislature. They plan to stand in front of the Limestone County Schools administration office every morning this week holding signs that read, “Honk if you earned your high school diploma” and “Your child is getting 3/5 of an education.”

A few motorists honked Tuesday morning as they passed the two students on Jefferson Street in Athens.

Bowen and Smith decided to protest the graduation rule change after discussing the state school board’s unanimous decision May 8 to change graduation policy.

The biggest change automatically enrolls all students for the state’s advanced diploma and gives parents the option of allowing their children to earn the less rigorous basic diploma.

Under an emergency measure, it allows students in the Class of 2008 to graduate even if they didn’t pass all five sections of the state exit exam.

The sticking point for Bowen and Smith is a change that allows a lower score on the state exit exam.

In the future, students who opt for the advanced diploma or the basic diploma will still be required to pass all of their classes and all five sections of the state exit exam, which includes reading, writing, math, science and history. However, if they can’t pass all five sections, they could receive a “credit-based” diploma by passing three of the five sections of the state exit exam, two of which must be reading and math. The diploma would stipulate that it is a credit-based diploma and students could complete coursework to earn a basic diploma.

Previously, students who didn’t pass all five sections of the exam received certificates of attendance but were not considered graduates.

Bowen, who plans to pursue a pre-medical degree at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, believes all students should pass five of five sections on the exit exam to earn a diploma.

“You have to consider that the grad exam is based on a 10th-grade curriculum and they have six chances to pass it,” he said. He noted that graduation coaches and other assistance are available to help students pass the exam.

“It is like any other test, you have to study,” he said. “I don’t think they deserve an easy out.”

Smith, who plans to earn a degree in photography at Montevallo, said she understands that some students simply perform poorly on standardized tests and, therefore, have difficulty passing all five sections. However, she believes they should be able to do it because they have six opportunities beginning in 10th grade.

“I’m afraid that in the future if an Alabama student wants to go to college outside of the state, they will be viewed as having a watered-down education,” Smith said.

Morton and others, including Tanner graduation coach Dr. Deana Young, do not see the credit-based diploma as an easy out.

“The credit-based endorsement does not water down anything, but it does offer students an option to a diploma that is not currently available,” Morton said. “Currently, 92 percent of all seniors pass five of five parts of the graduation exam.”

He said the credit-based diploma would be used primarily by special education students and “near” special education students, and that it “will enable Alabama high school graduates to be on a level playing field with high school graduates from other states where no test, or, at most, a less comprehensive test, is required as they compete for college admission and jobs.”

Of the remaining 8 percent who do not pass five of five sections on the exit exam, most of the rest have disabilities and about 3 percent have difficulty passing one area, Morton said.

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