Friday, February 12, 2016

What's Should a High School Diploma Be Worth? N.J. Apologists and Anti-PARCC-ers Say "Not Much"

In today’s NJ Spotlight, Mark Weber, ally of NJEA, Save Our Schools-NJ, Education Law Center, and doctoral student of Bruce Baker, argues that PARCC scores don't tell us anything about New Jersey schools that we didn't know from N.J.'s old ASK tests. (I made a different argument in an earlier Spotlight piece that has since been buttressed here.) Standardized assessments, says Weber, are closely correlated with student socio-economics levels and we're lying to ourselves if we pretend that we're actually preparing students, especially poor ones, for higher-level studies.
Is the new cut score more “honest”? PARCC promoters say it represents “college and career readiness,” but I contend it’s really showing “four-year college readiness.” And I must have missed the meeting where we decided all students should earn a bachelor’s degree; it seems to me that over-credentialing workers who do necessary work but don’t need four years of college would be an enormous waste of resources.
That's a stunning concession. Despite the recent report from Georgetown that by 2020 35% of job openings will require at least a bachelor's degree and another 30% will require at least some college or an associate degree, Weber says that N.J. high schools have become overly ambitious. It's only a pretense, he says, that high school graduates from low-income districts will be prepared for college. Anyway, they can always do “necessary work,” i.e., menial  jobs.

A N.J. sheepskin and a metrocard, in Weber’s world, should get you a ride on the subway. Or maybe a job on one.

It's the education apologist's canard: poverty is destiny.

Weber's thesis was echoed at Wednesday’s N.J. Board of Education meeting where NJEA representatives and other anti-PARCC people claimed that we are  asking too much of our schools to prepare low-income students for college. For example, the Record reports that Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project for the Education Law Center, complained to State board members that requiring passage of PARCC tests for graduation (which will begin with the Class of 2021, although alternative routes will remain available) represents a “serious violation of the rights of the class of 2016 [sic] and potential grounds for legal claims by seniors denied a diploma.” Why the threat of legal action?  Because this requirement for demonstrating college and career readiness through successful passage of PARCC tests could “reverse the state trend of increasing graduation rates with the greatest impact on our most vulnerable students.”

One of Karp’s concerns is that if we raise expectations to “real world” requirements for college work, N.J.’s venerable graduation rate will decrease. He’s right, as long as our diplomas signify honest (excuse the expression) attainment of proficiency.  Weber concurs: N.J. students who fall at the low end of socio-economic profiles can’t possibly be expected to receive high school diplomas that signify readiness for college-level work.  The answer, they say, isn’t to withhold graduation certification but to allow unprepared students to graduate anyway.

According to the logic of Weber and Karp, then, N.J. would implement a bifurcated system of high school graduation:  “real” diplomas for students in wealthier communities that signify proficiency of core content and ersatz ones for those for students who endure more challenging circumstances.

That's exactly the sort of elitist system that Common Core accountability was designed to prevent.

Earlier this week in Education Post, Andrew Wilk, professor of English and ESL and winner of a Teaching Excellence award,  proposed that struggling high school juniors and seniors enroll in community college classes. High school education reform, he says, is like "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" because traditional school systems “are impervious to change.”

Wilk goes further. "High schools," he says, "are trapped by the political imperative to make certain that every student receives a diploma—regardless of actual academic achievement" and until community colleges step in early, districts will continue to send "academically deficient graduates off to near inevitable failure at college."

That’s the subtext of Weber’s argument, as well as concerns expressed by Karp's Education Law Center and other anti-accountability lobbyists. If states adhere to rigid high school proficiency tests and award diplomas only to students who have mastered core content material,  then low-income students won't graduate from high school. Therefore,  states should award high school diplomas to students who haven't mastered core content material and, in fact, aren't prepared for college or career in order to forestall the impact of depriving students of those (devalued) diplomas.

This strikes me as a terribly flawed construct. School districts, in New Jersey and elsewhere, must own their inadequacies, especially in regards to traditionally disenfranchised students  like low-income, minority, English Language Learners. But the answer is not to throw out higher expectations and attendant assessments. The answer is to  explore innovative ways -- Wilk has one suggestion -- to meet the academic needs of student so that they have the option to attend attend four-year colleges. If there's "necessary work" for public schools, that's it.




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