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High School Diplomas: Summary of Required Diploma Coursework

Although the United States has no national curriculum or set coursework requirements for a high school diploma, 41 states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the Common Core Standards which outline the skills and knowledge students should have when they graduate. Most high school diploma and equivalency diploma programs reflect these educational standards and expectations.

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The Common Core Standards and High School Diplomas

The Common Core Standards are a long list of the types of knowledge and skills students should have at different grade levels. The standards were developed to make sure everyone with a high school diploma is prepared to enroll in college or begin a career.

While states typically list the number of course credits students need to earn a diploma, the Common Core Standards describe the specific types of academic skills and abilities students should have when they graduate. For example, students in Grade 12 are expected to be able to write arguments that analyze ideas and topics in clear, concise and effective language. According to the Common Core Standards in math, high school seniors should be able to create and solve algebraic equations and inequalities.

There are a variety of ways to earn a high school diploma. If you left school before graduating, you can still earn a diploma by taking a high school equivalency exam, participating in an adult education program, completing a national external diploma program or enrolling in an online high school. To discover which options are available in your state, you can visit your local school district website or contact your state department of education.

The U.S. Department of Education's website offers contact information for each state education department (www2.ed.gov). Although requirements for diploma programs vary, you can get a basic idea of the types of skills you will need to demonstrate by reviewing the Common Core Standards.

High School Equivalency Exams

If you did not finish high school, you can earn a high school equivalency diploma by taking a comprehensive exam on core high school subjects. Most employers and colleges accept equivalency diplomas as an alternative to a traditional diploma.

In the past, the General Education Development or GED Exam was accepted as a national high school equivalency test. However, in 2014 the GED was updated to incorporate the Common Core Standards, and several new alternative high school equivalency tests were introduced. Some states now offer the HiSET exam, while others use the Test Assessing Secondary Completion or TASC test.

The different equivalency tests cover the same content and have test sections in math, social studies, language arts and science. While all nationally recognized equivalency tests are based on the Common Core Standards, each test uses a different format.

Because these tests cover four years of high school education, most people who take them spend some time reviewing and preparing to take them. Adult education centers and programs in many states offer classes, tutoring and other types of support for anyone who wants to take an equivalency test.

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Adult High School

Many states offer Adult High School programs through colleges and public school systems. These programs typically allow anyone who did not graduate from high school to pick up where they left off and finish earning the credits needed for a diploma. Programs have different requirements, but in general, they start with your high school transcript to determine how many credits you need to graduate. Some programs may also require you to pass state assessment tests that are part of their graduation requirements.

National External Diploma Programs

The National External Diploma Program allows adults to use their life and work experiences to fulfill requirements for a high school diploma. The program uses a list of 10 competencies, or skills, in reading, writing, math and other subjects that participants must demonstrate to earn a diploma. Adults can use job tasks and responsibilities, family and community involvement and other experiences and knowledge to fulfill requirements which, like other diploma programs, reflect the Common Core Standards.

NEDP participants work with teachers and supervisors in schools and adult education programs to create portfolios that show they have demonstrated the required competencies. The NEDP is currently available in New York, Virginia, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, California, Indiana, and the District of Columbia.

Online High School Diploma Programs

More and more private colleges and universities, public school systems and charter schools are offering online high school programs that lead to a high school diploma. Some online programs are limited to high school-age students, while others welcome adult learners pursuing a high school diploma. Online high schools typically require students to earn a required number of credits by completing coursework through online lessons, classes, interactive discussions and other distance learning tools. Many accredited online high schools also set requirements based on the Common Core Standards.

Why Get a High School Diploma?

Not only can a high school diploma be instrumental in achieving your career goals, a diploma can help you earn more money. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, you can expect to receive $185 more in weekly income when working a full-time job with a high school diploma than without. As far as unemployment is concerned, those with a high school diploma experience unemployment at a rate of 2.6 percent less than those who are lacking a diploma.

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