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    Awarding Diplomas: Damned if You Don't; Damned Louder if You Do


    Update: One has to ask if the front page phony diploma crisis story below was just a set up for a truly disgraceful New York Times editorial Counterfeit High School Diploma running on Dec. 31. What a way to end the year. The editorial is bizarre as well as ugly. The "Times Picks" of online comments say it's a good editorial. Nothing like the chance to bash teachers to provoke people to make an online comment.

    by Susan Ohanian

    Here's a front page. above--the-fold New York Times non-story that's a perfect depiction of damning schools every-which-way. Schools with low graduation rates are depicted as failures; improve graduation rates, and then the diplomas they're handing out are judged to have no meaning. And the Times gives the departing Secretary of Education star billing on this issue.


    Quotation of the Day
    The goal is not just high school graduation. The goal is being truly college and career ready.

    --ARNE DUNCAN, the departing secretary of
    education, on the United States 82 percent graduation rate in 2013-14, the highest on record.--New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015

    Yes, send Arne out pretending that a throw-away line given in a phone interview is not pro forma hot air but something significant.

    The quotation links to this story: As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short, by Motoko Rich. As you read, take note of the "experts" referred to in the story.

    GREENVILLE, S.C. -- A sign in a classroom here at Berea High School, northwest of downtown in the largest urban district in the state, sends this powerful message: "Failure Is Not an Option. You Will Pass. You Will Learn. You Will Succeed."

    By one measure, Berea, with more than 1,000 pupils, is helping more students succeed than ever: The graduation rate, below 65 percent just four years ago, has jumped to more than 80 percent.

    But that does not necessarily mean that all of Berea's graduates, many of whom come from poor families, are ready for college -- or even for the working world. According to college entrance exams administered to every 11th grader in the state last spring, only one in 10 Berea students were ready for college-level work in reading, and about one in 14 were ready for entry-level college math. And on a separate test of skills needed to succeed in most jobs, little more than half of the students demonstrated that they could handle the math they would need.

    It is a pattern repeated in other school districts across the state and country-- urban, suburban and rural -- where the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower. This has led educators to question the real value of a high school diploma and whether graduation requirements are too easy.

    "Does that diploma guarantee them a hope for a life where they can support a family?" asked Melanie D. Barton, the executive director of the Education Oversight Committee in South Carolina, a legislative agency. Particularly in districts where student achievement is."

    Few question that in today's economy, finishing high school is vital, given that the availability of jobs for those without a diploma has dwindled. The Obama administration has hailed the rising graduation rate, saying schools are expanding opportunities for students to succeed. Earlier this month, the Department of Education announced that the national graduation rate hit 82 percent in 2013-14, the highest on record.

    But "the goal is not just high school graduation," Arne Duncan, the departing secretary of education, said in a telephone interview. "The goal is being truly college and career ready."

    The most recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading and math found that fewer than 40 percent were ready for college level work. College remediation and dropout rates remain stubbornly high, particularly at two-year institutions, where fewer than a third who enroll complete a degree even within three years.

    In South Carolina, even with a statewide high school graduation rate of 80.3 percent, some business leaders worry that not enough students have the abilities they need for higher-skilled jobs at Boeing, Volvo and BMW, which have built plants here in recent years. What is more, they say, students need to be able to collaborate and communicate effectively, skills they say high schools do not always teach.

    "If you look at what a graduation diploma guarantees today," said Pamela P. Lackey, the president of AT&T South Carolina, "the issue is we have a system of education that prepares them for a different type of work than we have as a reality today."

    Still, there is no single reason these rates have increased.


    Economists point to a decline in the teenage pregnancy rate, as well as a reduction in violent crime among teenagers. Some districts use data systems to identify students with multiple absences or failed classes so educators can better help them. And an increasing number of states and districts offer students more chances to make up failed credits online or in short tutoring sessions without repeating a whole semester or more.

    States also vary widely in diploma requirements. In California, South Carolina and Tennessee, the authorities have recently eliminated requirements that students pass exit exams to qualify for a diploma. Alaska, California, Wisconsin and Wyoming demand far fewer credits to graduate than most states, according to the Education Commission of the States, although local school districts may require more.

    According to one analysis of requirements for the class of 2014, 32 states did not require that all graduates take four years of English and math through Algebra II or its equivalent, which is often defined as the minimum to be prepared for college.

    "Students and their families rely on and trust the high school diploma as a signal of readiness," said Alissa Peltzman, the vice president of state policy at Achieve, a nonprofit that performed the study. "It needs to mean something. Otherwise, it's a false promise for thousands of students."

    Over the past decade in California, several large urban districts adopted coursework guidelines aligned to entrance requirements at the state's public universities. Los Angeles initially required that students earn at least a C in those classes, but the number of students on track to graduate plummeted. Now grades of D or higher are accepted.

    "It's a push and pull between rigorous standards that are harder to meet," said Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, "and less rigorous standards that are easier to meet but don't necessarily ensure that you know that much."

    In South Carolina, students must take four years of English and math and three years of social studies and science. Last year, the legislature voted to eliminate the exit exam. Parents of students with disabilities argued that the test made it difficult for their children to graduate, while business leaders said it did not indicate that students were ready for work.

    "Quite honestly, it had become very easy, and it didn't mean a lot," said Molly Spearman, the state superintendent of education.

    Last year, the legislature required all 11th graders to take a test assessing college and career readiness, as well as an exam that measured academic skills needed for most jobs.

    The first results, from the ACT college admissions tests, showed that only about a quarter of students statewide were ready for either college-level math or reading. Just 6 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanic students scored ready for college in math, with only slightly higher rates for reading. In one poor rural district where most of the students are African-American, graduation rates have risen to more than 85 percent, yet not one student scored high enough on the ACT to be deemed ready for college in reading or math.

    Even on simpler tests of the cognitive skills needed for many jobs, fewer than two-thirds of South Carolina 11th graders could show sufficient skills in both math and reading.

    Here at Berea High School, a rare, racially integrated campus with similar numbers of African-American, Hispanic and white students, administrators are proud of the rising graduation rate. Addressing the low scores on the ACT, administrators said many 11th graders had not yet learned the material covered when they took the test. And some educators say such tests do not accurately predict whether students will do well in college or in the workplace anyway.

    Imari Nicholson, a 17-year-old student at Berea, has expressed interest in sports therapy or dentistry. After he failed chemistry his junior year, his counselor reminded him that he would need the course to qualify for a college program in his chosen fields.

    He is retaking it this semester. This time, he is getting an A.

    But he said he was not satisfied with his scores on the ACT, which indicated that he was not yet ready for college. "I expect better of myself," he said.


    A picture caption provides this information:

    Photo
    A calculus assignment at Berea. According to college entrance exams administered to every 11th grader in South Carolina last spring, only one in 14 of Berea's students were ready for college-level work in math.

    I have family experiences with those high school calculus courses. Relatives did well in high school AP courses and also on the AP exam. Then, as college freshmen, with calculus waived, they hit the college math that comes next. They decided they didn't really understand calculus and took it again in college. I'm happy to report that both did well and are employed in scientific fields that required an exacting course of study.

    This is anecdotal but research suggesting that calculus requires a certain sophistication that many high schoolers, no matter how smart and diligent they are, are not quite ready to tackle. And they're much better off waiting a year or two. Or, as a number of discussants on Physics Forum argue, go ahead and give it in high school but don't offer college credit.

    I have my own experience of working my way through a calculus book, doing the problems correctly, and not having a clue of what it was about.

    But the issue here isn't calculus. The issue is the notion that high school should produce students who are "college and career ready." It stems from a corporate community that doesn't want to offer worker training.

    How many people are ever "career ready" for anything? One learns on the job.

    Stop asking high schools for guarantees.

    I sent this letter to the New York Times.

    Re:"As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short," Motoko Rich, December 2015.

    I read all this blather about what kind of career readiness a high school diploma must provide and wonder who's fooling whom. For starters, researchers have long pointed out that NAEP proficiency levels are way out of whack. NAEP warnings have been issued by the U. S. Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and a host of individual researchers.

    Let's not ignore the important information a high school diploma offers: Evidence that some 30 teachers or more attest that a student passed through four years of school with acceptable standing is no small accomplishment. What happens next is up to the students and the world they live in. We need to stop blaming schools and look closely at the shortcomings of that world.

    Decades ago I carried a Masters Degree in medieval literature in my job-hunting resume--and landed a minimum-wage job at a New York City advertising agency only because I could type 85 words a minute. I've never considered that my lack of career readiness made the MA useless.


    I wish I'd included the information that "The world they live in" includes the fact that
    79% of students at Berea High School participate in free and reduced lunch.

    I wonder if the reason NAEP isn't mentioned by name but is referred to as "the most recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading and math" because the reporter is aware of how questionable NAEP rankings are. It seems more than a little disingenuous to use NAEP results without crediting the source.

    Here's an online comment that is better than my letter. I hope they print it:

    Reader Comment:
    I disagree with the entire, elitist slant of this article. A high school diploma in our society is a minimum credential for most jobs. If you don't have a high school diploma, you're almost unemployable except in the most menial positions, and sometimes not even then. So when you talk about restricting high school diplomas because of alleged poor academic qualifications, you're really advocating an even more stratified social pyramid than we have now. I frankly don't trust current school testing, which is preponderantly just another money-making scam. High school is not easy even in gritty urban public schools. It has, in fact, become much harder in recent decades, with the virtual elimination of social promotions. You normally can't graduate from any American public school without acquiring at least a sufficient basic literacy needed for entry level positions in the workforce. And thats really what a high school diploma is meant to stand for today.

    — Susan Ohanian
    blog
    December 27, 2015


    Index of Common Core [sic] Standards

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