It is truly sad that the legislature has voted and sent to the governor a bill to loosen graduation standards. Frankly, I am aghast that the children who will most likely suffer are low income and minority children. If we look statewide at test results either on state measures of proficiency or national measures, the children who have the lowest scores are often the same children.
The state’s current standards for graduation really have no competence standards. The state only requires students to take a certain number of courses in various subject areas. So what? Students are not required to pass any measure or standardized test to demonstrate competence. In fact, it is possible for a student to meet “course requirements” and graduate as a functional illiterate in both American English and have few if any math skills.
In addition, the current standards for athletes are abysmal. It is possible for a student to be a varsity athlete according to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for four years and end up in their senior year with only 16 credits of the 22 to 25 required in most school districts. Further, an athlete is eligible to play with a grade point average of either .5714 for passing four of seven courses or .6667 for passing four of six courses. What can a student do with those kinds of GPAs?
The Connecticut Department of Education issued a report called “Smarter Balanced Assessment 2015-16 Preliminary Results.” The results for English for Grades 3-8 are very revealing. For 2015-16, we see the following results for students at Level 3 (essentially described as proficiency) or above:
- 68.6% of White students
- 31.4% of Black or African American students
- 33.2% of Hispanic students
- 33.11% of students eligible for Free or Reduced Price Meals.
For the same grade range in mathematics, the profile of students showing achieving Level 3 or above is:
- 56.9% of White students
- 17.6% of Black or African American students
- 21.2% of Hispanic students
- 20.8% of students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch.
Are we really prepared to say these kinds of results justify “loosening graduation requirements?” If we are, we are actually saying that it’s OK for more than two thirds of Black or African American, Hispanic and students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch to either fail or perform below acceptable levels for English.
For mathematics we would be saying the same for about 80 percent or more of African American, Hispanic and students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch. Too many students are entering or trying to enter the military, the work place, vocational schools, community college, or college or the work place without needed skills. Are we really O.K. with all of these children not having basic skills?
Some would love to blame the federal and state governments for underfunding mandates like the Education Reform Act thereby creating burdens that interfere with delivering effective programs. Funding at both levels would help in areas like special education, where the federal government has never lived up to its promise to fund 80 percent of the cost of the Education for All the Handicapped Act or IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Pick your target. Test scores would be better if, “parents cared”, “we had better students”, “teachers and administrators cared.” None of these statements help. They are all based on a key assumption that parents, teachers and administrators know what to do differently to help students, or to help parents help their children. Too often, many in each of these groups do not.
Let’s get real, the key to improving student achievement is improving expectations of staff and students. It is not loosening standards for graduation that is needed. Rather, we must refocus standards on skill and knowledge competence.
In 40-plus years of experience in public education across eight states and at the national level, I have found that the ingredients for outstanding student achievement are: what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching and high expectations for student performance.
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” I would suggest that too often in my experience we’re doing the same thing over and over again. We can improve instruction, we can improve training and professional development to assure that we do a better job of measuring teaching, learning, evaluating and measuring.
I believe that we must have clearer, tighter, higher standards, not looser ones.
Nicholas A. Fischer is the former Superintendent of New London Public Schools and Former Associate Commissioner, Finance and Accountability, Massachusetts.