The Measure of a Successful Graduate

This has been an interesting week for national education standards and firm performance measures.  We celebrated President’s Day on Monday with AFT President Randi Weingarten making the case for national standards on the opinion pages of The Washington Post —  She makes a compelling case, a case that Eduflack and other have been making for quite some time.

It also flows nicely from the report issued by NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve at the end of 2008, focusing on the need for the United States to pay closer attention to international benchmarking, a push to effectively capture the right data so we know how our students are performing when compared to their academic colleagues in other industrialized nations.
Yesterday, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland raised the ante a bit more, calling for an overhaul of the state’s Ohio Graduation Test, citing concerns that nearly one in 10 Ohio high school seniors fail to pass the OGT (after multiple attempts at success).  The full story can be found from Denise Smith Amos at the Cincinnati Enquirer —  
It should be no surprise that some in Ohio are already wondering if changes to the OGT mean increasing standards and expecting more from our students (as is Strickland’s stated objective).  Typically when we talk about improving student assessment measures, it means one of two things.  The first is the fear we will ask for more from our students (as is happening in Ohio).  The all-to-often reality is it usually means a weakening of the standards, dropping expectations to ensure that more students are hitting the magic number and schools are reaching their AYP benchmarks.
But the Ohio experience raises a very interesting question.  Can our states provide an effective “graduation test,” one that is expected to measure the full value of a high school education, in the 10th grade?  Obviously, we aren’t testing students on the math and science concepts that are traditional in 11th and 12th grade classes (including Algebra II, Trig, Chemistry II, Physics, or even advanced life sciences).  In some locales, it means not measuring world or U.S. history.  In each and every school, a 10th grade “graduation test” only serves as half of an effective measure.
Yes, Eduflack understands the need to provide students a second chance to pass this important test.  Yes, I realize the stakes are high, particularly when you say a student can’t earn a diploma without demonstrating sufficient performance on a single test.  But can a test taken in the middle of one’s 10th grade year effectively measure the comprehensive learning acquired during the secondary school experience?  Can a graduation test taken two years early truly help postsecondary institutions and employers know the full skills and abilities of the students exiting our K-12 systems?
The answer is clearly no and no.  We tell every student that they need a high school diploma.  We tell them that dropping out is never a viable option.  More states are even shifting to an 18-year-old age requirement for students to drop out.  But how do we expect students to take their full high school experience seriously if we tell them in the spring of their 10th grade year (not even the mid-way point of the high school experience) whether they have passed or failed high school?  History tells us that “failure” tag is not one that inspires students to buckle down and do what it takes to pass on the second or third try.  Quite the opposite, it provides students an excuse to give up, whether then remain in the classroom or not.
Critics will obviously say that there is no effective way to administer a comprehensive exam and effectively evaluate students at the end of 12th grade; we simply don’t have the time to do it right.  It won’t be fair to students that they be denied their diploma because they failed an exam a week or a month prior to graduation, they say.  Students won’t have multiple opportunities to take the exam, working to fix what may have gone wrong.  Teachers won’t have the opportunity to provide the necessary interventions to fill the gaps.
That’s where concepts such as national standards come in.  Yes, we should know what every 10th grader (as well as other students) should know and be capable of doing at the end of an academic year.  Those standards are core to a successful K-12 learning experience.  If students are meeting standards at the end of 8th grade and 10th grade, they should be prepared to meet the challenges of a true graduation exam in 12th grade.  If they are off the mark come 10th grade, educators have two years to intervene and empower students with those educational building blocks they need to succeed.
Yes, Governor Strickland, the OGT is not rigorous enough.  Kudos for trying to do something about it.  Part of the problem is the nature of standardized testing.  Part of that is the reality that we cannot effectively measure high school performance less than halfway through the experience.  A truly rigorous graduation test requires measuring courses and content gathered in 11th and 12th grade.  A true exit exam, offered near the conclusion of 12th grade, may seem as the highest of the high-stakes test.  But it is the only way to truly measure whether our graduates have the skills and abilities holders of a high school diploma should have.  It is the only way to demonstrate to our postsecondary institutions and our local businesses and industries that K-12 graduates are capable of doing what we expect of each and every graduate.
National standards give us the regular, ongoing benchmarks to ensure we are hitting the academic marks we need to hit throughout the K-12 process.  Effective data systems — such as those being built in some states and those advocated for by the Obama administration through the economic stimulus process — provide us the information and the research necessary to ensure our kids are hitting those marks, while providing teachers the guidance on necessary interventions and needed steps to bring all students up to proficiency.  And meaningful, rigorous graduation exams, administered at the close of the high school experience, are the final measure to ensure the impact and effectiveness of that K-12 education.
This is not an either-or-maybe scenario.  We need the national standards, the data systems, the exit exams — and the policymakers, administrators, and teachers who know what to do with it all — if we are to regain our competitive edge and restore real value to a high school diploma.
If we are to deliver real return on investment for our school improvement efforts, we must take assessment and data seriously.  We can’t wait this out and assume it will get better on its own.  We need to get serious now about teaching, measuring, and evaluating the effectiveness of public education.  

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