What’s a high school diploma worth?
That question underlies much of the current disputes about higher standards for schoolchildren.
Historically we’ve flung around high school diplomas like glow sticks at a rock concert. But as the world flattens and college/career expectations heighten, this generosity suddenly seems misplaced. Hence, higher standards and aligned assessments. Hence in-your-face rawness of student unpreparedness. Hence demands for change. Hence pushback and retreat (see New York) from teachers union lobbyists and those who fear and disparage changes to the status quo.
Trenton Public Schools is a good example. Last night at the school board meeting the administration announced to great fanfare that graduation rates at Trenton Central High had markedly increased from 67% in 2014 to 79.7% in 2015. (At one point, Trenton High had a 42% graduation rate, the lowest in the state.) The high school principal boasted, “We are defying the odds. The hot breath that a lot of our suburban counterparts are feeling right now, that would be the breath of Trenton Central High School as we meet and are about to beat your graduation rate.”
Wonderful. But what does a high school diploma from TCHS signify?
From the Trentonian:
But while district leaders touted those numbers, later in the meeting came damning data from last year’s PARCC tests [which measure college and career readiness].
The district hovered below or barely above 10 percent for meeting expectations on the tests, which were first administered last year.
For example in math, only 14 percent of third grade students who took the test met expectations. That was the only group to fare above 10 percent for the district in math. In Algebra II, none of Trenton’s 112 students who took that test met expectations.
Generally, Trenton students missed the state average by roughly 30 percent.
“I’m blown away by the fact that this is considered acceptable, regardless if it’s the state’s baseline, this isn’t anything to be celebrated,” board member D. A. Graham said at the meeting. “I’m shocked, honestly shocked by the low percentages. In some areas, we were zero.”
For English and literacy, Trenton students hovered in the teens for meeting expectations, with only the eleventh graders scoring a 20 percent. Again, Trenton students were averaging 35 percent below the state’s average.
Education Law Center, NJEA, and Save Our Schools-NJ, lobbyists for stasis, fight furiously against using tests based on higher standards a graduation requirement because then Trenton students, as well those who attend low-standards districts, wouldn’t get diplomas. That’s a reasonable fear. But is the answer to continue to indiscriminately hand out the sheepskin or is the answer to elevate learning and teaching?