#1 - The requirement is Algebra I, not Algebra II, I believe. This is just as reasonable a requirement for a high school diploma as Bio I. Really. I don't care that you had a difficult time with it. There are people who had a difficult time learning to read -- that doesn't mean literacy should be nonmandatory in high school.
#2 - The "I never use it" whine is the laziest thing I've ever heard. I never used my high school chem, bio, or physics knowledge in the "real world" either. MIT puzzle hunts and playing around in academia don't count. There's no practical use for the amount of Shakespeare I was forced to read. I've willfully forgotten Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace. Why did I have to learn spelling in elementary school? After all, we've got spellcheckers... even here on lj. Seriously, what is mandatory in education? Beyond reading and arithmetic, and maybe writing/typing (aka textual communications) ... which, by the way, is elementary school stuff... what do we learn that has immediate application?
#3 - I do agree there needs to be a more beefed-up vocational education in the high schools, if for no other reason to get the kids to actually =work=. You know, making stuff. I think teenagers don't do enough real, constructive work.
That said, the whole point of general education is to provide some sort of mental flexibility for life. When computer systems change, I don't have to go back to school... because I know how to teach myself how to adapt. Likewise, being an auto mechanic now is very different from being an auto mechanic 20 years ago. You can't give kids the idea that all schooling & education is for the purpose of getting a very specific job, and then you're screwed when the details change. Imagine the changes that will come if gasoline gets =really= expensive (the latest blip was nothing) -- who knows what kind of engines we'll be seeing. Ethanol, fuel cells, solar-powered, wind-powered, nuclear... yes, one expects a certain amount of training, but you've got to be prepared to change the way you do things.
No, I don't use Shakespeare or biology or chemistry, but it does get me in different modes of thinking about the world, and different ways to react. I've taken classes in a lot of "useless" subjects, but I've found them helpful in tangential ways.
#4 - Exit exams need to mean something, or high school diplomas will continue to mean nothing. The only reason so many people feel the need to go to college is because a high school diploma means only that you showed up often enough that they gave you a diploma. If you're getting good grades in math from grades 9-12, but can't pass a 9th grade-level exam -- that should indicate to you that your grades are meaningless. I ran into this problem once before: when I taught calculus at N.C. State. There was a reason they had a pretty strict requirement on placing out of Calculus I. Because over half of the freshman class had had Calc I before and claimed to have gotten decent grades in Calculus the year before... and yet, they didn't even know how to give the equation of a line. Or what the area of a circle was.
So the question is: are people happy that high school grades and diplomas are credentials with no credibility? If they're not happy, you've got to have some kind of do-or-die certification. Having "alternatives" where people can opt out of basic math knowledge or literacy is not a good way to shore up the credential.