Wimping out on standards?

Liam Julian

The connection between rhetoric and reality in discussions about reforming America's high schools wears thin.

That erosion was on display Saturday in Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times. Herbert talked to Bob Wise--former governor of West Virginia, knowledgeable president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, and author of the new and estimable book Raising the Grade--and emerged from the conversation rankled by what he heard about the nation's high schools.

"We can't even keep the kids in schools," a flustered Herbert wrote. "Half of those who remain go on to graduate without the skills for college or a decent job." He's right, of course, in suggesting that America has not one but two problems with its high schools: too many young people drop out of them sans diplomas--and too many of those who earn diplomas are ill-prepared for what follows. But can both problems be solved at the same time or does the solution to each exacerbate the other?  What happens when those tougher standards lead to real live kids actually being denied diplomas and threaten to discourage some kids from remaining in school?

Two weeks ago, Gadfly addressed the dilemma faced by Massachusetts in setting the "cut score" for its MCAS test. Today, Gadfly is perplexed by other states' ambivalence regarding their own graduation requirements--and by the backsliding we observe as the day arrives when young people expect to walk across that stage and be handed that diploma.

Our attention was seized by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who days ago signed into law a bill that weakens her state's exit exam requirement by allowing high school students who don't pass the AIMS test (thousands don't) to supplement their meager scores with good grades. The legislation's justification resides in the statements of students such as Maria Cami, an 18-year-old who maintains a 3.2 GPA but does not, by her own admission, understand math. "I feel like I'm being penalized for something I'm not good at," said Cami.

Cami believes a high school diploma is an entitlement. Arizona's governor and legislature are abetting that belief (Arizona has also repeatedly delayed implementation of its exit exam).

So, too, the Alabama legislature. Several weeks ago, that body passed an emergency measure allowing the class of 2008 to graduate without passing all five sections of the state exit exam. To its credit, though, Alabama also reformed its graduation regulations such that, in the future, students who can pass only three of five exit exam sections--two of which must be reading and math--may receive a "credit-based" diploma, which is not the same as a conventional diploma. Alabama, in other words, is heading toward a two-tiered diploma system.

As these states ease their exit exam requirements, others simply refuse to enact any. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has been pushing to establish graduation tests but is opposed by Keystone State school boards, almost a third of which have condemned his proposal. Timothy Allwein, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said, "Graduation has always been a matter of local control." Also, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "many school boards...are fearful that the tests will lead discouraged students to drop out." 

There's plenty of precedent for this sort of thing. Washington State watered down its exit exam requirements in 2006, as did Maryland. That year, a Center for Education Policy report found that exit exam growth had leveled off, especially after California faced repeated and acrimonious legal challenges to its test policies. And as greater and greater attention (some of it leveraged by NCLB) focuses on graduating more kids and cutting the dropout rate, it's fair to predict that many jurisdictions will find themselves asking: can we truly have higher standards and higher completion rates at the same time?  

Here are some possible resolutions:

  • Forget the "college or bust" mindset. Being prepared for some form of postsecondary education as well as gainful employment is a valid--perhaps the most valid--outcome of a sound high school education. But it's nuts to picture everybody attending Swarthmore. Kids bored beyond belief by the prospect of years and years and years of Macbeth, Lord of the Flies, and equations with two unknowns may well drop out, especially if they would rather be working and making money. A productive remedy is to offer career and technical education classes that provide a definite, practical pay-off. Students have an opportunity to engage their interests and talents, and they can feel satisfied that they are spending their time productively. They also stay in school. Some districts are expending significant effort to expand such programs. Some high schools are teaming up with community colleges to deliver high-quality "tech prep" programs and the like.
  • Create alternative routes to graduation. By high school, it's apparent that different students possess different levels of academic ability and interest. Why not offer choices among diplomas as well as choices among schools, much as colleges themselves do when they assist students to choose between, for example, associate's and bachelor's degrees?
  • Co-op and distance-learning schools. Allow high school kids to work during the day and learn at night or weekends. Or work at a paying job one day a week and go to school on other days. Let them take courses and earn credits without sitting in buildings called schools. There are plenty of examples, from the Florida Virtual School to the Cristo Rey schools 
  • Like Massachusetts, develop separate requirements for college-bound young people on top of passing the state exit exam that yields a simple diploma. Yes, that means admitting that the high school diploma per se is not equivalent to readiness for "college-level" academic work (see here). But it may cause more young people to stick around for diplomas that would still mean something.
  • Don't make promises or threats that you don't intend to keep. It's really squalid to see states set "tough" requirements and then back off, defer, or punch holes in them. Our kids deserve to grow up in a country where policy makers do what they say. That's what Bob Herbert should write next.

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