Two Wise Articles about High School Graduation Requirements

This week brought two fine commentaries on today’s punitive high school graduation requirements. Stan Karp, an educator, demonstrates widespread flawed assumptions about the need for high school exit exams. And, in a stunning commentary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exposes the serious flaw in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to demand that students present proof of a life plan in order to secure a high school diploma.

I hope Stan Karp, an educator and editor at Rethinking Schools Magazine, whose column is published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, is correct when he says it seems to be going out of style to use exit tests artificially to raise the bar for high school graduation: “In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Karp’s article exposes the flaws in the myth that high school graduation tests ensure that students hold what has been called “a high-quality diploma.”

Karp lives in New Jersey, which still uses a standardized testing bar for high school graduation. I live in Ohio, where a new graduation plan, scheduled to begin with the class of  2018, requires students to accrue a total score of 18 points from a batch of required end-of-course exams. Projections indicate about a third of Ohio’s high school seniors will not have accumulated enough points to graduate and will be denied a diploma in June of 2018.

Karp opposes high school exit exams, what he calls, “the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.” He summarizes the research demonstrating that high school exit exams don’t, as their fans promise, ensure that students are “college and career-ready.” From a report by the New America Foundation, Karp explains: “(R)igorous exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effect on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates.”

What was the promise and where did it go wrong? “Exit testing relies on several related, flawed premises. One is that standardized testing can serve as a kind of ‘quality control’ for high school graduates, guaranteeing that graduates are ‘college or career ready.’  Another is that they have ‘predictive’ value for future success in academic or workplace situations, and serve a useful gate-keeping function for institutions that ration access to opportunity.  But there is little evidence for these contentions.  The tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure—intelligence, academic ability, college readiness—and they don’t measure at all qualities that high schools should nurture in all young people, like responsibility, resilience, critical insight, and empathy. Although the passing or ‘cut’ scores on standardized exit tests can be manipulated to produce varied outcomes, their main impact is to narrow access to opportunity for some, not to produce better preparation for all… Like the SAT and ACT before them, scores on the new Common Core tests closely mirror existing patterns of inequality and privilege.  Expanding their use would reinforce those patterns rather than disrupt them.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times column this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also worries about the way high school graduation requirements contribute to inequality.  Jackson examines the assumptions underneath Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new high school graduation proposal to require that, to earn their diplomas, high school seniors in Chicago’s public schools must present documentation of college or military enrollment or evidence of a job. (This blog covered Mayor Emanuel’s plan here.)  Jackson exposes Emanuel’s plan as another example of thinking that individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps through personal determination. At the same time Jackson lays bare a serious flaw: the problem isn’t so much each high school graduate’s lack of effort to make plan as it is society’s failure to ensure that students’ plans could possibly be realized.

Here are the realities Rev. Jackson describes in Chicago, his hometown: “Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job). A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump through that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives. Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort.”

Jackson compares Rahm’s graduation requirement to the 1996 welfare reform, whose technical name betrays what was intended—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that blamed the victims for their poverty. Jackson believes the law  failed because it didn’t follow through with a viable way to expand work opportunity: “Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time. Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job—and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed.”

Jackson concludes: “Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school.  What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job. These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand that students present a life plan and the states’ imposition of high stakes graduation exit exams do nothing to address the deeper problem of poverty and inequality that almost nobody ever mentions. Rev. Jackson’s commentary in a Chicago newspaper seems stunningly out of place in today’s plutocratic America where poverty has effectively been hidden. Rev. Jackson’s commentary is short; it is a must-read.

Graduation Exit Tests Continue to Stunt Opportunity

There was lots of news about high stakes, high school graduation exams seven or eight years ago when many states were instituting such graduation requirements, but while you hear less about these tests today, according to Education Week, 24 states continue to require them. These are the tests that students must pass to earn a high school diploma, even though they may have passed all of the required classes.

This week the Hechinger Report, a news service from Teachers College at Columbia University, profiles a young Mississippi woman who passed all of her high school courses and three out of four high school exit exams.  When she failed the reading exam for the fifth time right before graduation, her school offered her the chance to accept what Mississippi calls an “occupational diploma,” a lesser document that tells an institute of higher learning or a potential employer that the young adult has not qualified for a regular high school diploma.

According to the Hechinger Report, in Mississippi, “Alternate diploma students face high unemployment rates.  In the year after high school graduation, alternate diploma students have nearly triple the unemployment rate of high school graduates.”  While 7 of Mississippi’s 15 community colleges accept students with an occupational diploma, no four year college or university accepts the alternative credential. The young woman profiled by the Hechinger Report seemed to be thriving in a post-high school  occupational program training her to be a medical technician until the school discovered that she carried only an occupational diploma from her high school,  refunded her tuition, and asked her to leave.

The standards and accountability movement in education with the accompanying high stakes tests are said to protect society from the under-prepared.  In the states that continue to condition high school graduation on high stakes tests, the message is that the quality of the diploma is what counts, as though that piece of paper is really some kind of guarantee for an employer of the future performance of the young adult coming out of school.

What if we found a way to value the student instead of the quality of the credential that student carries?  And anyway, what happened to the idea of a second chance?  UCLA professor and education writer Mike Rose continues to lift up the importance of public schools and community colleges as places where it is possible to open opportunity for those society seems satisfied to throw away:  “The intersection of a reductive, technocratic orientation with the aura of deficiency that surrounds the poor not only dehumanizes our public institutions but makes them less effective.  To have a prayer of achieving a society that realizes the potential of all its citizens, we will need institutions that affirm the full humanity, the wide sweep of desire and ability of the people walking through the door.” (Why School?, 2014 Edition, p. 199)

What if we honored the experience of the students who have passed all of their high school classes with the diploma they have earned through that experience?  What if we decided to fund public schools adequately to hire enough counselors to help even struggling students become aware of the possible paths after high school?

Our public schools educate a wide range of students, all with abilities and gifts they can contribute to the well-being of our communities just as they earn enough to help support their families.  Does it help students if we create exams that highlight their areas of weakness and in many cases ensure they will be unemployed?