If states test real readiness, most will fail

Should states replace graduation exams with new tests aligned to Common Core State Standards? States have very different standards and methods of measurement now, writes Checker Finn. About half require students to pass an exit exam, usually pegged at ninth- to 10th-grade standards, which might be seventh- or eighth-grade standards under CCSS. Some now require students to pass end-of-course exams in high school. “There’s a widening belief in educator-land that this is a better course of action than a single statewide exit test,” he writes. Other states don’t believe in high-stakes test and trust teacher judgment.

No state graduation exam is considered evidence of college readiness or accepted by employers as proof of employability. Mastering the new standards is supposed to show college and career readiness.

If the “cut scores” (still to be set by the two assessment-building consortia) on new Common Core assessments at the 12th grade level truly signify college/workforce readiness and are accepted as such by the real world, the failure rate will be enormous for years to come and the political pushback will be powerful. How many states can withstand not giving diplomas to large fractions of kids who have persisted in school through 12th grade? Yet if they continue to give diplomas to just about everyone who persists, then many of those diplomas will continue not to signify college-workforce readiness and the real-world incentive/benefit effect will continue to be lost.

If CCSS is wildly successful, it still will take years for students to meet the new standards. Finn suggests setting multiple cut scores such as “minimal,” “tolerable,” and “truly college/career ready.”

This should be done at all grade levels, and kids (and parents and teachers) need to see the steep trajectory if they want to get from, say, minimal in 3rd grade to tolerable in 7th grade and “truly ready” by the end of high school.

Second, states should—for some years, but maybe not forever—award two kinds of high school diplomas: One will resemble the old kind and represents Carnegie units or maybe passing an old-style exit exam (or both), and nobody will claim that it denotes college/career readiness. The new one, however, will correlate with the “truly ready” level on the Common Core assessments (and whatever additional graduation requirements a state may want to impose in other subjects).

Many colleges and employers would have to accept the “truly ready” diploma as evidence the graduate can handle college-level math and English classes and job training, Finn writes.

I’d like to see a training-ready diploma as well as a college-ready diploma. Many young people would succeed in an apprenticeship or community college vocational class, if motivated to work harder in high school.

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  1. Back in the dark ages, some schools awarded Honors, college-prep, vocational and general diplomas, and might also have a certificate of attendance for spec ed kids in a work skills program. NY’s Regent’s Diploma was taken only by college prep kids and had real standards; I remember my cousins talking about and taking it.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Back when I was in school, in Maryland, if you did not pass in the high 90’s on the graduation exam (Maryland functional reading/writing/math) as a 7th grader, you were probably not college bound. Not official policy, but the exam was pegged at the level of ‘can read a want ad in the paper.’ ‘Can fill out a job application.’ ‘Can balance a checkbook.’

    • For kids in the honors-level classes, in western MoCo (DM, you know where I mean), virtually all of the seventh-graders scored at least that. The only test prep was a reminder to make sure the number on the answer sheet matched the number of the question. It amounted to a big yawn. Elsewhere, not so much… Those county-wide course descriptions were pure fantasy in some schools. I also remember when (about 2000) the School Board was shocked! shocked! to discover that each school was setting different pass rates for the algebra I and geometry tests – (70 in the west, 30-40 in some schools) – which was widely known in the 80s.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    This may be overly cynical but I translated Finn’s article:

    1. Readiness for college or a career requires mastering 12 years of a pre-college program.

    2. Today, very few high school students master a pre-college program–but we pretend they do, and graduate them anyway.

    3. As a transition, we should admit that most of them don’t–but gradually tighten standards till just about all of them do.

    He is absolutely right that 2 is true. However, 1 is very much not true. Which is fortunate because 3 is never going to happen. Neither we nor Finland nor Singapore nor anywhere will ever have 80 or 90 per cent of young people mastering a 12-year pre-college program.

    Perhaps when Common Core fails to live up to its impossible hopes, we can put aside our fantasies and get real.

  4. Please put the meat back into the k-5 curriculum and instruction; the problem starts there.

  5. I’d agree with Roger and Momof4, in order to get students ready for college, they actually need to start by Kindergarten or 1st grade, and momof4 is correct when she says the real fault is in elementary school.

    Students who fall behind (i.e. – programs like reading by 8, etc)…correct me if I’m wrong, but by the time a kid is 8, that’s 3rd grade…it is far too late to get kids on a reading track by this age (see the posting on vocabulary for more info).

    Many students who manage to pass so called exit exams (which legislators in my home state, and the superintendent of public education are railing against) are NOT an indication of readiness for either the workforce, enlistment in the military (requires the ASVAB to get in), or success in college (in many cases, 35-40% of all incoming freshmen from high school need one or more remedial classes).

    Another educational reform, and another failure

    • My school began with grade 1, in a town with no preschool or kindergarten, and everyone was reading by the end of the year. Most kids had parents with no college background and many were poor (we didn’t know that), but we all had stable, married parents. We were given phonics, spelling, grammar and fundamentals across the disciplines from the beginning. Class sizes were usually in the mid-30s, with one teacher who covered everything, including art/music history/appreciation. None of the grade 1-4 teachers had a college degree; three Normal School grads and one with a year or two of college. They knew the content, however, and how to teach it – far better than today’s norm.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      No. It’s not too late for 8 year olds who haven’t learned to read yet to get on a college track. As a literacy volunteer at a charter school that serves a disadvantaged population and as the parent of a dyslexic 16 year old sophomore who is currently on the honors track and didn’t learn to read at grade level until the 6th grade, it is quite possible to remediate poor reading skills.

      With a concentrated and effective effort and many, many additional hours of focused practice, it is quite achievable.

      Of course, it must be the primary priority of the organization to remediate in the most efficient and humane manner possible, and that’s not possible in the current public education system with its idiotic and inflexible structure.

      So, I guess I’m agreeing with the lot of you. Catch them early and give them the best quality instruction with a laser like focus on literacy for the long term. It’s just that our current system is really shitty at this.

      • Stacy,

        The issue usually comes from a lack of parental involvement, rather than a lack of effort on the student’s part. Also, students who have a documented learning disability need extra work to handle what a regular student should be able to do, without doubt.

        I’m just annoyed that states want to reform everything without ACTUALLY fixing anything.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “If states test real readiness, most will fail.”
    Most will not fail.
    Therefore, the states shall not test real readiness.

  7. twitter_mcleod says:

    At no time in American educational history have most P-12 students been ‘college-ready’ in the sense that’s meant here. That’s not an indictment of today’s youth but rather a reflection of the incredibly high standard to which we are now holding them (and us).

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      A small correction: It is not a reflection of the incredibly high standard we are holding today’s students to. It is a reflection of the incredibly high standard we are *pretending* to hold today’s students to. If we actually held them to that standard, we would have a high school graduation rate somewhere between 20 and 50 per cent.

    • Ummmm, if MOST students in the P-12 system are college ready, then why do we have a remediation rate which approaches 30-40 percent in most four year colleges, and in some cases, in excess of 60 percent in junior or community colleges.

      My definition of a college ready student is one who can take and pass the following first year courses:

      English 101/102
      Biology (general or plant or animal), Chemistry (General 1st and 2nd semester), Geology (101/102), etc.
      Political Science 101/102 (or History 101/102)
      Sociology 101 or Psychology 101 or Intro to Philosophy
      and whatever multicultural requirement is needed at most schools these days.

      That’s what I expect of a ‘college ready’ high school graduate…not a ton of remedial courses.