Next Step grad Guillermo Romero plans to go on to college. Adjusting his tassel is Lily Harris, a staffer at Next Step. The District is considering a proposal to give diplomas to GED recipients. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The graduates wore royal blue and white robes. The principal talked about “closing one chapter and beginning another.” Students got awards. Parents cried.

Thursday night’s ceremony was like those at most high schools, with one exception: The piece of paper inside the gold-embossed folders school leaders handed to students at the end.

“The principal signs it and we stamp it with a seal so it looks very official, but it’s really not a diploma,” said Juan Carlos Martinez, principal of the night school at the Next Step Public Charter School in Columbia Heights.

Because the students were graduating from a GED program, the District granted them a high school equivalency certificate. In the future, though, these GED graduates could earn a traditional high school diploma under a proposal the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is developing.

Advocates say that offering the students a diploma, as Maryland and 12 other states do, would wipe clean a stigma that makes it harder for GED graduates to get a job or pursue higher education.

Graduates line up to have their pictures taken at Next Step. The District is considering a proposal to give diplomas to GED recipients. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The proposal is part of a broader conversation about what a high school diploma should mean. Does it acknowledge a student’s understanding of a set of skills and knowledge, or should it also recognize academic and social experiences, such as lectures, labs, electives and daily routines that aren’t measurable on tests?

It’s a pressing question for education leaders in the District as they seek to restructure high schools to raise graduation rates and give high school dropouts a chance to earn a living wage. About 60,000 adults in the District lack a diploma or an equivalency certificate.

In December, the State Board of Education considered a policy change that would untether high school credit from time spent in class — a century-old metric — and create more flexible paths toward a diploma, such as passing a test or doing an internship or project. A vote was delayed to give the community more time to respond. The “superintendent’s diploma” for GED graduates was included in the plan.

Some board members said they are in favor of the concept of a GED diploma as a means of opening more doors for poor District residents.

Ruth Wattenberg (Ward 3), a new board member, said she thinks GED graduates should be recognized for their effort and skills, but she is concerned that offering a diploma for GEDs might send mixed messages to students after the board spent several years increasing academic expectations for what students should learn at school.

“On the one hand, we are raising standards, and on the other hand, we are saying ‘Oh, look: Here’s a back door you can go through,’ ” Wattenberg said.

The battery of tests known as the GED, for General Educational Development, recently underwent its largest overhaul in 70 years in an effort to make it more rigorous and reflective of the expectations of colleges and employers.

Starting in January 2014, the test moved completely online with new questions that reflect the Common Core State Standards and updated science standards. As with the old test, the score required to pass is set so that test takers must outperform 40 percent of traditional high school students.

In its first year, pass rates dropped. According to preliminary numbers, out of 444 test takers in the District, 298 completed the exams and 63 passed. At Next Step, just two passed all four tests in 2014, but 13 more students passed in January.

The overhaul followed criticism that the GED has failed to live up to its promise of providing a second chance to high school dropouts. Historically, GED recipients have not fared as well as high school graduates in college and the job market. Studies show significant gaps in earnings and job turnover.

A 2011 GED Testing Service study found that about 60 percent of test takers said they planned to pursue post-secondary education, but just 43 percent enrolled; about a third of those students dropped out after a single semester, and just 12 percent graduated.

Advocates say the difference in outcomes has more to do with the difficult life circumstances that lead people to drop out of school as well as the perception that a GED is inferior, and they argued to the board in December that a diploma would give GED students a lift.

Maryland has offered diplomas to GED graduates for decades. Virginia gives GED recipients a certificate.

Patricia Tyler, Maryland’s director of adult education and literacy services, said she is not aware of any research about whether the diploma has made a difference in employability. But she said recipients can say they have a high school diploma.

Harry Wingo, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said he is in favor of giving GED graduates the benefit of the doubt: “We should be more about creating paths to success and not setting up barriers.”

The U.S. military is more cautious about the GED. The government has found that attrition rates are higher for recruits who earned a GED, and military recruiters have a cap on the number of GED graduates they can enlist.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and other economists have studied outcomes for GED graduates and concluded that the test is not a good predictor of success because it measures only cognitive ability.

“There certainly are situations where employers need people who understand math better, but for a lot of jobs, that’s not why people get fired,” said John Eric Humphries, a University of Chicago economist. “It’s because they yelled at a customer, they were late to work or they didn’t call when they didn’t come in.”

Attending high school gives students more opportunities to learn such noncognitive skills, he said.

Next Step is designed to offer some parts of a traditional high school experience along with GED preparation. The school has about 500 students annually, many of them immigrants who have experienced hardships and breaks in their education. For those who enter at the eighth- or ninth-grade level, it usually takes about a year and a half to graduate, school administrators said.

Students move at their own pace. They build relationships with teachers and each other, and counselors help them work through personal challenges and, as they get closer to the test, make plans for college or work-training programs.

When students do get their GED certificate, “they guard it with their lives,” said Martinez, the principal.

Graduate David Marquez held his certificate proudly after Thursday’s ceremony.

“This is my first step,” he said. Next comes more English classes, then community college. He was too old to enroll in a typical American high school when he came to the United States from El Salvador at 19, he said. He started working and then enrolled at Next Step last year. He accelerated through the material and passed the Spanish-language GED.

“My mother all the time tells me, ‘Make real your dreams,’ ” Marquez said. “My dream is to be a graphic designer.”