Kristie L. Yingling Storms of Pasadena will graduate from high school tonight having met all of her high school requirements -- including balancing a checkbook, applying for a bank loan, writing out a set of street directions and sending letters to elected officials.
Seven years ago, Storms, 23, dropped out of Northeast Senior High School in Pasadena as a freshman. In November, she enrolled in the student-paced Maryland Adult External Diploma Program, which awards a diploma from "Maryland High School" for training in "life skills."
No academics are required.
"We don't do any teaching in the program," said Ronna Nudelman, who directs the external diploma program in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, where 91 people will graduate this year.
Many of the external diploma candidates are older than the typical General Educational Development (GED) applicants and are often employed but looking for a way to get a better job. "With the GED, the skills that are tested are more academic" than are the skills the external diploma examines, Nudelman said.
And, although almost 75 percent of people who get external diplomas report an increase in income thereafter, some educators wonder whether it's fair to give them the same high school diploma as the one students earn after studying math, science, foreign language, history, English and other subjects six hours a day for four years.
Storms thinks it is.
"It didn't take a lot out of my time; it was something that my work would work around, and you get an actual high school diploma and a graduation, just like you were to graduate from school," she said.
Storms, a nail technician at Hair Unlimited in Glen Burnie, is one of about 175 people in the Baltimore area who will graduate this year with external diplomas. She and others at least 18 years old paid $75 to $200 and passed ninth- or 10th-grade basic skills tests in reading, math and writing.
Then they completed five 30-page packets of assignments and fieldwork -- each takes 15 to 20 hours. Sample work includes stapling labels to notebook paper, taping job advertisements clipped from the newspaper and answering questions about emergencies and proper use of medicines. The packets instruct them to use a library and enter answers on blank forms.
Completion of the packets is supposed to demonstrate proficiency in "communication, computation, self-awareness, social awareness, consumer awareness, scientific awareness, occupational preparedness and technological awareness," according to a flier on the program. It takes about a year.
Storms and her husband, Joseph, also a 23-year-old dropout, went together for a two- or three-hour meeting at Lindale-Brooklyn Park Middle School in Linthicum each week with a part-time assessor -- not a licensed teacher -- who checked their work for accuracy.
Kristie Storms said she didn't need the staples of a regular high school curriculum. "You learn stuff you need to know in your life," she said.
The external degree program is being run in 15 Maryland jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Howard, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties. About 10,000 people have graduated in Maryland since the program began in 1979. A dozen other states and the District of Columbia have similar programs. The program, begun in 1979, is without state funding for this year. However, legislators have allocated $281,070 for each of the next three years.
"The governor never really disliked the program; it was a question of making some difficult budgeting decisions," said Raymond C. Feldmann, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "If he didn't think this was a worthwhile program, he wouldn't have put the money in. It was never in his mind a bad program."
But the lack of academic work is a sticking point for some educators and full-fledged high school students.
"There needs to be enough rigor in a program to make it so that the person who receives it has earned it," said Gary D. Marx, spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators, a 15,000-member Arlington, Va.-based organization of school superintendents, administrators and principals. "You don't want an external diploma to be a bargain-basement diploma. You want to have it have real meaning."
The program has not proved to be a steppingstone to college education. Five years after completing the program, 1 percent of graduates had enrolled in four-year colleges and 28 percent had enrolled in community colleges, according to a 1994 survey conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education.
Mark Jacque, Towson State University's assistant director of admissions, said he knew of no external diploma recipient who had applied there. Officials at Goucher College and Bowie State University said the same was true of their campuses.
"They would need to take a look at the scoring of it and the process they went through to get that diploma to decide whether it would suffice for admissions," said Christopher Iseli, a spokesman for Goucher.