80% of Success is Showing Up

A 2010 dissertation by Rutgers researchers Jeffrey Backstrand, Andre Keeton and Alan Sadovnik looked at 9,725 Newark public school students during 2003-2008 and found that the district is relying increasingly on the Alternative High School Assessment. (Hat tip Star-Ledger.) In order to graduate high school in NJ students must pass a proficiency test. The standard assessment is the HSPA. Until last year students who failed the HSPA took the Special Review Assessment (SRA), which was widely regarded as impossible to fail. Now students take the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), which is slightly more rigorous. The results of this study, then, do not include NJ’s transition to the AHSA.

The authors of the study conclude that the majority of Newark public school students through 2008 used the SRA to graduate, especially black and Hispanic students. More girls relied on the SRA than boys. Magnet school students were more likely to take and pass the HSPA, the more rigorous of the two exams (although the HSPA is considered an 8th-grade level test).

Another finding: Students who were able to pass the HSPA were more likely to attend 4-year and 2-year colleges (there’s no data, apparently, on whether they graduate). Students who failed the HSPA three times and took the SRA were more likely to attend 2-year colleges or vocational schools.

The authors consider the impact of the elimination of the SRA (already done, of course, and replaced with the AHSA; slow news day for the Star-Ledger?)
Many educators and policy makers continue calls for elimination of the SRA. As a significant percentage of urban "Abbott Districts" graduates exit high school via the SRA, this study provides evidence against such a policy direction. This study suggests that eliminating the SRA might result in many students dropping out. Given that almost half of the SRA graduates studied here attended some form of postsecondary educational institution, sound policy dictates that the assessment be strengthened, not eliminated.
It’s a conundrum. The majority of Newark students who don’t attend magnet schools (or charters, probably) can’t pass the qualifying test for high school graduation. Is it in the best interests of the students to give them a diploma anyway? Yes, say the authors: "These attempts [to eliminate an alternative qualifying exam] would further penalize them for the social context in which they find themselves."

In other words, it’s not the students’ fault that they failed the test. It’s the “social context": poverty for sure, maybe an undisciplined home environment, or the lack of a father, or the lure of the streets. So we give them a diploma as a kind of compensation for their deprivation despite the fact that they can’t pass an 8th grade test.

Questions remain. Do the kids who graduate high school via alternative tests and “attend” post-secondary institutions actually get a college diploma? If they don’t, are their professional prospects better than if they hadn’t gone at all? Do we devalue the diplomas of the kids who pass the HSPA by handing out diplomas on the basis of “social context?” Should we get rid of high school graduation qualifying tests altogether instead of parading through the pretense of the process?

Is Woody Allen right and 80% of success is just showing up? That's the lesson these new professors of education glean from their study of Newark's public school students.