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.

Bring back differential diplomas

All New York students must pass Regents exams in math, English, science and social studies to earn a diploma this year.  Writing in City Journal, teacher Marc Epstein predicts a diploma drought.

Once only college-bound students attempted to earn a rigorous Regents diploma, he writes. Other students earned a general diploma; in some towns, schools offered a commercial diploma or vocational diploma to help graduates qualify for jobs. But that system was dropped when critics charged it directed minority students into the workforce rather than on to college.

The state’s new “one size fits all” diploma standard means that special-education students must pass the same English and history Regents as students attending Stuyvesant High. It also means that either the Regents exams have to be altered or the grading requirements adjusted to avoid a huge drop-off in passing scores.

Meryl Tisch, the new Regents chancellor, and David Steiner, the state commissioner of education, want to make the Regents tests more rigorous. The only sensible way to do that is to bring back the differential diploma, Epstein argues. That would require the political courage to “challenge the now-conventional bias in favor of routing all kids toward a college diploma of one kind or another.”

Update: Inside School Research reports on dueling studies on the effects of tracking students.  While a Fordham study found that higher math scores in tracked middle schools, University of Colorado Education Professor Kevin Weiner says “the research doesn’t account for differences in resource levels, teacher quality, parents’ education levels, and other factors that might explain the higher numbers of top-scoring students in schools with multiple tracks.”  His new study profiles three successful untracked schools.