The culmination of education for the high school student, the commencement ceremony, or graduation, is a major event and transition point for students, parents, and teachers. It is a time for students, parents, and teachers to celebrate their hard work and accomplishments. Students take pride in having met the graduation requirements that were established by their state and local board of education; parents celebrate the accomplishments of their children; and teachers and school administrators commemorate the fruits of their labors. Commencement exercises serve as a transition point for the individual members of the graduating class who will follow diverse paths into futures that may include higher education, the military, and the world of work.
The purpose for the commencement exercise is to acknowledge the students who have successfully met the requirements for high school graduation, usually with the presentation of a diploma. Graduation requirements differ from state to state and from school district to school district within a state. The accountability movement that took place during the 1990s resulted in more stringent requirements for high school graduation, leading to the creation of state tests that students must pass in order to earn a traditional diploma. States have responded to demands that high school graduates must be able to demonstrate mathematical and language skills needed for success in higher education and the workplace by creating a series of diplomas. The traditional diploma that was once awarded to all students who participated in the commencement exercise has been replaced in some states by differentiated diplomas and certificates. The new diplomas include the traditional diploma, diplomas for exceptional students whose handicapping conditions prevent them from meeting all graduation requirements, and certificates of attendance for students who have attended classes without passing all graduation requirements. By replacing the traditional diploma with awards that differentiate between students based on their achievement, high schools attempt to clearly designate the knowledge and skills of students who have completed study.
The typical commencement ceremony takes place in the school auditorium, gymnasium, or football stadium. Parents, friends, and teachers are usually seated in designated areas prior to the time scheduled for the ceremony to begin. School officials are typically assembled on a stage in front of the assembled guests, and special seating is reserved for the graduates between the stage and the audience. At the appointed time, the graduates march into the arena as music is played by the school band or over the public address system. Students may be dressed in matching caps and gowns; some students may wear special insignia that denotes membership in honor societies or other significant accomplishment. The ceremony usually includes speeches by the senior class president, the valedictorian, and a guest speaker. Instrumental or choral music may be included in the program. The culminating event is the presentation of graduates and the presentation of diplomas and certificates. Students are often called to the stage to receive their diplomas from the principal.
At some schools students are given responsibility for the program. At these commencement programs, students may talk briefly about their studies, discuss their accomplishments, or present a short play to dramatize some school experience. They may also recognize honor students or students whose accomplishments have been outstanding. The commencement program can include weeklong demonstrations and exhibits of student work prior to the ceremony.
Commencement planners encountered a number of challenges during the last two decades of the twentieth century. One of these challenges was finding a facility large enough to accommodate the families and friends of graduates who wanted to attend the celebration. Schools often use their school football stadium if one is available. This decision often solves one problem only to create another if weather conditions are not conducive to an outdoor ceremony. Since commencement programs typically occur in the spring, rain and lightning may force the program indoors. If weather does force the program indoors, the number of parents and guests who can attend may be limited.
Another potential problem for school officials is graduate behavior at commencement. Some students choose to celebrate by engaging in minor pranks at their commencement, such as throwing a beach ball around during speeches to handing the principal a marble as the diploma is presented. Students may also decorate their caps with decorations or a message. Educators who believe that commencement should be a formal ceremony have tried a number of strategies to prevent pranks from occurring and have enjoyed varying degrees of success.
During the second half of the twentieth century, United States courts handed down a number of rulings that defined the constitutional relationship between public schools and religion. None of those rulings directly addressed the constitutionality of prayer at public school commencement. The rulings did, however, limit prayer initiated by school officials in the classroom and at school events such as football games. Prior to these rulings, it was common practice for schools to invite a local clergy member to pray as a part of the commencement program. As schools wait for the United States Supreme Court to rule on prayer at commencement, some high schools are content to allow students to pray if they so choose while others expressly forbid students who make presentations from praying.
Some elementary and middle schools conduct an end-of-year ceremony that is similar to the high school commencement. These ceremonies typically include the presentation of awards and recognition of student accomplishments. They do not include the presentation of a diploma. Elementary and middle school ceremonies that closely parallel the high school commencement have been criticized as being inappropriate for students who may be tempted to drop out of school before high school graduation.
See also: Secondary Education, subentry on Current Trends.
Bagin, Don, and Gallagher, Donald. 2001. The School and Community Relations. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Hudgins, Herbert, and Vaca, Richard. 1999. Law and Education: Contemporary Issues and Court Decisions. Charlottesville, VA: LEXIS.