Graduation is typically the closing chapter in any student educational enterprise. At the graduation ceremony, students are rewarded for their achievements, and schools bestow some degree, certificate, or other recognition of the fulfillment of the predetermined academic requisites. Because of its importance as a marker of achievement and a rite of passage, graduation has generated a number of legal issues, as summarized in this entry.
Schools are generally given the authority to govern the standards for graduation. However, these standards must fall within the state graduation requirements. Generally, states set minimum credit hour requirements both for graduation generally and for individual subject areas, such as English, mathematics, science, social studies, and physical education. Asmall number of jurisdictions, such as Colorado, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, allow local boards much greater latitude in setting graduation requirements.
States and schools must also provide adequate notice of the requirements the student must fulfill to achieve graduation. In 1981, the Fifth Circuit, in Debra P. v. Turlington, found that students have a property interest in a diploma once they complete the specified requirements. Further, the court explained that educational institutions cannot withhold or revoke diplomas or degrees without first providing some amount of due process to candidates.
To maintain value in degrees or diplomas awarded at graduation, institutions enact policies that require students to meet certain grade, testing, service, or other requirements, such as paper completion at the higher-education level. These grades, testing, and other policies have frequently been challenged in court but have generally been upheld.
An array of cases in the early 1990s challenged community service requirements that school officials and states adopted as a prerequisite to graduation. These provisions were questioned not only under standard constitutional provisions related to education, such as the First and Fourteenth Amendment, but also pursuant to the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition against involuntary servitude. However, the courts that examined the issue dismissed these claims, citing the differences in the kind of servitude the Thirteenth Amendment originally sought to prohibit; the educational nature of the service requirements; and the choices, such as private school education, that would allow the students to avoid the requirement. Although the courts differed somewhat in how they upheld service-oriented graduation requirements, all of the courts that considered the issue have ruled in favor of the educational institutions, reasoning that service requirements are constitutional.
Graduation testing requirements have seen more litigation recently. Nearly half the states now require students to pass tests to qualify for high school graduation; in the year 2008, 7 out of 10 high school students must meet this criterion. Unlike the relatively established law surrounding service requirements, the challenges to exit examinations are presently ongoing. For instance, just in 2005 to 2006, a single state, California, had suits attacking the state’s exit examination requirements on their inequitable application to low-income and minority students, unfairness to special education students who may not be able to answer most questions, and the failure of the state to consider alternative measures to the exit exam that could provide similar assurances of graduate competency.
At the same time, recent litigation in other states challenged mandating a state test written solely in English for English language learners and directly attacked state exit examinations as unconstitutional. However, while these cases successfully delayed the implementation of the exit examinations in many states, they have not been successful in permanently eliminating them as a graduation requirement. Generally, if students receive proper prior notice that they will be required to take examinations when entering schools, are prepared for them throughout their course work, and are given opportunities to retake the test if they fail, the examination passage requirement for high school graduation has been upheld, at least for students in regular education.
As for students in special education, the graduation requirement of having to pass examinations must include alternative means of completion and other accommodations in order to withstand legal scrutiny. These accommodations can include different passing scores; different test presentation means, such as Braille; and timing and setting alternatives. As to the tests themselves, some states offer alternate diplomas if students do not pass or choose not to take the standard examinations, other states offer alternate examinations, and still other states exempt special education students from mandatory exit examinations altogether.
There are substantial differences between awarding degrees or diplomas effectively constituting graduation and allowing students to participate in graduation ceremonies. While many cases have been brought seeking to establish a constitutionally protected right to attend the graduation ceremony because of its important place as a marker of completion, courts have uniformly rejected such attempts. Mere participation in graduation ceremonies, however, does not entitle the participants to the corresponding degree.
Justin M. Bathon
See also Debra P. v. Turlington; Prayer in Public Schools; Religious Activities in Public Schools; Testing, High-Stakes
- Dounay, J. (2006). Standard high school graduation requirements (50 state). Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.
- Hyman, R. T. (1997). Mandated community service in high school. West’s Education Law Reporter, 116, 847–874.
- Kober, N., Zabala, D., Chudowsky, N., Chudowsky, V., Gayler, K., & McMurrer, J. (2006). State high school exit exams: A challenging year. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.
- O’Neill, P. T. (2001). Special education and high stakes testing for high school graduation: An analysis of current law and policy. Journal of Law and Education, 30, 185–222.
- O’Neill, P. T. (2003). High stakes testing law and litigation. Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, 2, 623–662.
- Peterson, K. (2005, May 23). High school exit exams on the rise. Available from http://www.Stateline.org Legal Citations Debra P. v. Turlington, 730 F.2d 1405 (1984).