Math had always been difficult for Maggie Helms.
Beginning in middle school she needed all kinds of tutors and special help three to four times a week to keep up with her school work. But despite her efforts, she was unable to pass the math portion of a state graduation exam. When time came for Helms to graduate with her friends from Sequoyah High School in Cherokee County, she didn’t receive a diploma.
School officials let her walk across the stage and shake hands with the principal, like any other graduate, but her diploma case was empty.
Now, thanks to a change in Georgia law, she and thousands of others can get their diploma after all.
“I felt like crap. I was so disappointed. I knew how hard math was for me, but I was committed. I worked really hard senior year,” Helms, now 21, said. “I felt I earned my diploma.”
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Without that diploma, her dreams of attending the Savannah College of Art and Design to study fashion design were crushed.
For years, graduation season for students like Helms, who couldn’t earn passing scores on graduation tests, meant no diploma and derailed post-high school and college plans. The legislation retroactively eliminating the tests as a diploma requirement could now make it graduation season for them as well.
The new rules, signed into law March 30, do away with tests that are no longer required for high school graduation but used to be. Those include the Georgia High School Graduation Test, phased out in 2011, and go back to the Basic Skills Test, which was implemented in 1981.
The law also clears the way for students to appeal for diplomas to the local school system where they were last enrolled, instead of going through an arduous waiver process with the state school board. Local school boards will determine whether former students have met all other graduation requirements.
State officials say about 9,000 Georgians will be eligible to receive the diplomas they couldn’t get in the past.
Early inquiries show use of the law is picking up steam. More than 560 former students have petitioned for diplomas with Cobb County Schools, and Atlanta Public Schools has received more than 1,200 requests, for example. In Whitfield County in far North Georgia, 252 people petitioned for their diploma in the first 30 days after the law was passed. County totals are due to the state each July.
Local school officials say they have heard from from students who’ve been denied job promotions, who’ve lost college scholarships, and those who’ve long hidden the fact that they had no diploma.
“We think this is one of the best things that’s happened in education in years,” said Judy Gilreath, superintendent of Whitfield County Schools. “When you look at the decreased earnings and lost opportunities, this is life-changing for people.”
In Georgia, an estimated 1.2 million adults lack a high school diploma or GED. In 27 counties, at least 30 percent of the population has no high school credential.
Twenty-four states require students to pass an exit exam in various subjects to graduate and receive a diploma, according to a 2014 report by the New America Foundation. Some states are rethinking these exams or implementing tests that are more focused on measuring college and career-ready standards. Georgia students must take end-of-course assessments in eight courses that are required for graduation, but they are not considered graduation exams like the Georgia High School Graduation Tests.
For years state Rep. Brooks Coleman, who sponsored Georgia’s new legislation, had heard from families and students like Helms about their problems passing state graduation tests and the impact having no diploma was having on their lives.
“I had seen and heard from students who couldn’t get in college, who couldn’t get a job, who couldn’t get into the military, and it was heartbreaking,” said Coleman, R-Duluth, a former educator who leads Georgia’s House education committee.
A Forsyth County student, for example, testified during one of Coleman’s committees earlier this year about attempting to pass the math part of the graduation test four times and missing the mark by 20 points. Helms says she took the test six times.
Coleman worked with state education officials for more than a year on the legislation, which was modeled after a similar law South Carolina lawmakers passed last year.
Some opponents have said the legislation waters down the state’s education standards.
Coleman is adamant that is not the case.
“These are not students we’re giving anything to. They passed the course work,” he said. “Many are just poor test takers.”
During the period covered by the new law, Georgia has had three categories of graduation tests, said Garry McGiboney, an associate superintendent with the state department of education who has worked with local school systems on behalf of students seeking waivers from the state board to get their diplomas.
The state administered a basic skills test for reading and math from 1981 to 1991, and a basic skills writing test from 1987 to 1991; a high school writing test from 1991-2013, and the high school graduation tests in English/language arts, math, science and social studies from 1991 to 2011.
Completing the appeal process involved weeks of work by local school system officials gathering documents and evidence before the state school board even considered an appeal. The state board considered about 300 appeals each month, McGiboney said.
“They really agonized over those decisions,” McGiboney said. “There are no clear-cut answers in these cases.”
Helms, the former Cherokee County student, applied for and received her diploma last week. She plans to enroll in Chattahoochee Technical College in the fall, and ultimately study anthropology.
“Not having a diploma holds you back: it’s hard to get a job, you can’t go to college and you almost can’t leave home,” said her mother, Ruth Sallinger. “I told (Maggie) she has a choice now. With no high school diploma, you don’t even get the chance.”