About three months ago, Bill Nelson got an unusual phone call.
Nelson oversees data and assessment for the Agua Fria Union High School District in southwest Phoenix, Ariz. The call was from a former student, who left the district back in 2011.
He was "not quite a graduate," Nelson recalls. At the time, the young man had failed part of Arizona's high school exit exam, called the AIMS.
But in 2015, Arizona rescinded the AIMS requirement, and made that retroactive. So this former student was in luck.
After Nelson looked up his records, he was able to issue a new transcript and diploma, making the young man eligible for a steady, relatively well-paying job as a miner in Colorado. "He was really very happy," Nelson says.
Which raises a question NPR Ed has been exploring for some time: What does it mean to graduate from high school?
The answer used to be fairly straightforward: Pass a given number of classes in a few core subjects, and you're good. Or if you didn't make it, you could take a test called the GED for a second chance.
That simplicity has more recently been replaced by a whole lot of confusion. The GED has two competing high school equivalency tests now, for example.
And in the past decade, high school exit exams have passed quickly in and out of vogue. Half of states required them in 2012. This year? Only 13.
As Education Week reported last week, when states get rid of these exams, the question naturally arises: Why leave students without a diploma, when the test they failed is no longer required?
The newspaper reported that Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, California and Alaska, along with Arizona, have so far passed laws to allow students who failed some of these tests to get their diplomas anyway.
The change could profoundly affect the lives of tens of thousands of people. The difference between a high school graduate and a high school dropout is a 37 percent increase in weekly earnings on average.
But making the switch is resource-intensive. In Georgia, some of these students should have graduated up to 20 years ago. In California, reports say, schools and districts are responding unevenly to the logistical nightmare of tracking down former students who have long since gone on with their lives. In Texas, the state education agency had to rule on the eligibility of just one student.
In Agua Fria, Bill Nelson set up a hotline for students to call and dug into student records going back five years. He did it all on his own initiative, with no extra resources from the state. He mailed 40 diplomas out just three months after the change in the law.
The issue is clearly complicated. As we've reported, increasing high school graduation rates is a national priority, reinforced by federal law. At the same time, the Common Core is supposed to be enforcing higher "college and career ready" standards. But constantly changing requirements make it harder to believe that any consistent standard is being maintained.
"The requirements for a high school diploma vary from state to state and even from district to district," says Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at UC Santa Barbara who has studied the high school diploma extensively. "This means that the knowledge and skills students possess when graduating, and hence their level of preparedness for college and careers, also vary."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It's the classic anxiety dream. We've all had it. You're back in high school, and you have to pass one more test. Well, if you're students in some states, that nightmare is playing out in reverse. Some school districts are actually calling up former students from years ago who never passed their exit exams and telling them they've graduated after all. Anya Kamenetz and the NPR Ed team are tracking this and other shifting requirements for a high school degree. Hey, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So what's going on here with students being offered these brand new diplomas?
KAMENETZ: Well, there's a bit of whiplash because of changing requirements, particularly when it comes to exit exams. So as recently reported by Education Week, in 2012, half of all states required students to pass end-of-course tests to graduate. And now that number's been going down, and it's down to just 13 states.
KELLY: So is this basically an issue of fairness, state officials deciding we can't hold students responsible for not passing a test that we don't feel is particularly relevant ourselves?
KAMENETZ: Well, that's exactly right. I mean, when you remove the test requirement, the question naturally arises. Why would you leave students without a diploma when the test they failed is no longer required? And that's why states, including California, Texas, South Carolina, Arizona and Alaska, have actually had to go back and pass laws that say that anyone who met all the other requirements for a degree can go ahead and get their diploma now even if they finished school many years ago.
KELLY: Many years ago, do we know how many years back they're going and how many students will be affected by this?
KAMENETZ: Well, it varies state to state. Some states, it's five years. Some states, it may be as long as 20 years. And the changes affect potentially tens of thousands of young people. And this is not a little difference. You know, if you have a high school diploma in this country, on average, you are earning almost 40 percent more per week.
KAMENETZ: But there's a catch, of course, and that's that states, even though they pass these laws, they're not passing out any money to district sort of schools to actually locate these former students and to give them their degrees.
KELLY: So potentially, there are students out here who may be affected and don't know it.
KAMENETZ: Absolutely. I did talk to one head of data and assessment in a district near Phoenix who had really taken the initiative with this and ended up mailing out dozens of diplomas.
KELLY: OK, Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team, thanks so much.
KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.