Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Government Mandated High School Proficiency "Exit" Exams Coming Soon to a School Near You

"We have allowed diplomas to be awarded to students who have not been able to demonstrate basic levels of preparedness for life beyond high school for too long by handing out ‘empty’ diplomas, we are cheating our children and our commonwealth." Dr. Gerald Zahorchak, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education
Pennsylvania state law passed last July established a one-year moratorium on any regulations regarding high school graduation requirements. The State Board of Education will continue its public hearing and input process over the next several months and will formally revisit the proposed regulations once the moratorium expires at the end of June 2009. Nevertheless plans are moving forward to establish high school graduation competency "exit" exam state laws.

What should students and parents know about high school graduation exit exams?
So what is the agreement on high school graduation regulations between the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), the State Board of Education (SBE) and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA). Well basically, by 2015 all of Pennsylvania's high school students will be required to pass competency exit exams in all core content subjects along with other criteria established by school districts (course completion, senior projects, grades, credits, etc.) in order to receive a certified high school diploma. Take precautionary note: exceptions will be made for special education students.
Those assessments can be chosen by your local school district, but they must have been independently validated to assure a high-quality level of academic rigor. Current validated exit exams include the 11-grade and 12th-grade retake Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSAs), Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) assessments. Under the new proposal the state tests, known now as the Keystone Exams but formerly called the Graduation Competency Assessment, would be an option for all school districts. However, students would continue to be mandated to take the PSSA's per the NCLB law.
Under the regulations advanced by the State Board, Pennsylvania would be required to offer school districts additional supports for struggling students, including: voluntary curriculum in English, math, science and social studies; strategies for identifying and helping students who need additional assistance; and improved teacher training. Students having an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), those in special education, may qualify for exemption from proving academic competency.

Will school districts really close the achievement gap by 2014?
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) exposed the nation to the education recession, if you will, experienced by millions of children all across one of the wealthiest and well educated nations around the globe. By 2014, one-hundred percent of the nation's students are expected to be proficient in mathematics, reading, writing, science and social studies, with the exception of those qualifying for specialized exams due to disabilities. It just so happens that the "achievement gap" NCLB intends to zap close is best recognized as being a fissure experienced mostly by blacks, Latinos, poor children, and "special needs" students. The data reveals that white students have benefited the most from America's education system. Whites are more likely than many of their non-white peers to be proficient in core content courses, and as such better prepared to pass high school competency graduation exams.

Case in point--Lower Merion.
Let us look at the Lower Merion School Districts' (LMSD) achievement gap to conjecture whether 100% of its black students will be proficient in core subjects and prepared for the high school graduation competency exams by the 2014-2015 school year.
LMSD is one of Pennsylvania's wealthiest school districts. Lower Merion is a suburb abutting Philadelphia along route 1. The 2010 school year budget is projected to be nearly 200 million dollars for a population of 6,800 students. It is a wager that there is no other school district in the state paying more per student in expenditures than LMSD. Technology abounds as do certified teachers who are among the highest paid in the state. LMSD is a blue-ribbon, award winning school district where more than 90% of its students are proficient or better in all PSSA scored areas Obviously, the vast majority of LMSDs' students will pass graduation exit exams and receive diplomas in preparation for success in college or the work-force.
On the other hand, LMSD educates about 550 black students; out of which about 160 students, 30 percent, have been identified as disabled and require special education services. The achievement gap between black students and their peers is significant for students approaching high school graduation. LMSD's 11th grade PSSA scores indicate that 36% of its black students were proficient in math in 2008 and 35% in 2002; illustrating virtually no growth in six years. During the same period black student reading proficiency levels have risen from 31% to 53%, yet remain below the 63% target. Finally, according to the PA Dept. of Education, http://www.paayp.com/, the total of all black student achievement as evidenced by the 2007-08 scores for grades 3-11 are reflected by a negative 5.3 point drop from 2007 levels in reading proficiency scores to 60.5%, and a slight decline by negative 1.3% to 61.8% in mathematics (black elementary students scored very well in math and reading thus raising the mean score).
According to 2006-07 program costs estimates, LMSD spent about 3.4 million dollars to close the achievement gap for all students. School board members and administrators, including Lower Merion's, have bemoaned that the federal government has not appropriated the NCLB funds needed to effectively close the achievement gap. Albeit true as the lack of federal funding may be, Lower Merion money abounds as does the achievement gap. One has to infer that closing the achievement gap takes more than money and certified teachers. Perhaps Marva Collins can enlarge our understanding about the sort of reform required to close the gap.
According to an American education icon, Mrs. Marva Collins, who mastered the ability to educate "unteachable," "learning disabled" and "problem children" to advanced levels, the mis-education of our nation's children is not a function of a child's race or neighborhood but of the teaching methods he or she is exposed to from kindergarten on. Our education system is more likely to label a child "learning disabled" than it is an educator "teaching disabled." Effective teaching requires making daily deposits so that every child can become a lifetime achiever and they will never have to go through life faced with "insufficient funds."
The Education Trust seems to agree with Mrs. Collins that teachers matter most to student achievement. If so, then what should parents know and understand about Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell's and Education Secretary Dr. Gerald Zahorchak's push to implement high school graduation--exit--exams, which will hold students more accountable to be able to apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate information and communicate significant knowledge and understanding of mathematics, writing, reading, science, technology, and social studies starting with the graduation class of 2015.
The question begs asking: if a resource rich school district such as Lower Merion cannot close the achievement gap in nearly seven years what confidence can be placed in the state's ability to ensure that it does over the next five before exit exams become the law of the land and devastation to the black community? Please note that many schools across the nation have already closed the achievement gap and are now working to sustain their gains.

Dr. Gerald Zahorchak, Pennsylvania education secretary, said the standardized competency exams would hold school districts and students accountable.
According to the 11th-grade and 12th-grade retake reading and mathematics 2007 Pennsylvania System of State Assessment (PSSA) scores, more than 56,000 high school graduates received a diploma who graduated unprepared for college or the work force. Research presented to the State Board of Education found one in three Pennsylvania high school graduates who enrolls in a state-owned university or community college cannot pass a first-year college math or English course, and the failure of our high schools to prepare those students costs taxpayers more than $26 million annually. Pennsylvania is seeking to join the other 20+ states across the nation who implement exit exams.
How was the need for exit exams identified?
In December of 2006 Govenor Rendell's Commission on College and Career Success– a group of civic, education and business leaders– unanimously called for a statewide graduation requirement, including the use of Graduation Competency Assessments as a way for Pennsylvania to set high and uniform standards to ensure all graduating students are prepared for higher education or the knowledge-based workforce.
Since the Commission on College and Career Success report, the Department of Education enlisted the research team at Penn State’s College of Education following requests from state legislators, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, and state-level education groups who completed a study and found that only 18 out of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts appropriately measure whether their students can read and do math at the 11th grade level in preparation for post-high school success.
As of March 2009 and in light of a moratorium on the issues, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), the State Board of Education (SBE) and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) have mutally agreed on several key policy issues and are preparing to move forward after the June 2009 session.
Opposition to Competency Assessments Include...
Opponents of exit exams like the teacher's union, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) argue that mandated exit exams are a policy change having wide ranging social, economic and educational impacts along with negative consequences including increased dropout rates, narrowed curriculum, diversion of resources away from education of students and toward more standardized testing of students, and disproportionate harm to impoverished, minority, English language learners and special education students. The argument continues that the cost for remediation would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to tax payers.
Recommendations by the oppostion includes...
The PSEA recommends that the resolution to mandated exit exams and the achievement gap is revealed through increased parental involvement programs, especially those who themselves grew up in homes where education was not valued; transition programs from elementary to middle, and from middle to high school; smaller class sizes in the early grades; early childhood education, particularly for children who start school behind their peers and those coping with poverty; the state should fund schools at their adequacy targets to help improve student achievement. Apparently the teacher's union is not in agreement with Marva Collins that the teachers make education meaningful for students, parents are supplemental not causal.
Add your thoughts to the following short list of considerations on competency assessments action items.
  • The achievement gap must be closed by all means necessary if exit exams are to become state law.
  • Students need to be educated by proficient, knowledgeable teachers who thoroughly understand PDE's academic standards and its relevancy to the curriculum and their lesson plans.
  • Students need teachers who have the capacity to decipher the standardized data results in real-time in order to identify achievement--standard--gaps and provide informed pedagogy to fill them in a timely fashion.
  • Students need school board members, administrators and teachers who understand the need for measurable goals and effective methods to address the impact of low expectations, academic tracking of students into below standard level courses, and sustained enrollment of students in special education whose primary "learning disability" is underachievement in reading and mathematics.
  • Students need school districts to do more than talk about parent engagement and community collaboration. Parents do not know the academic standards, the curriculum or a teacher's lessons plans, yet they are often blamed for student failure. Parent and community engagement programs such as Dr. Joyce Epstein's can be employed to assist school administrators in engaging parents beyond the school's open house, parent conferences, PTA/HSA sessions, special events, and disciplinary hearings. Details on the Center for School, Family, and School Partnership at John Hopkins University can be read on the website http://www.csos.jhu.edu/P2000/center.htm
  • Students need curriculum that is relevant, rigorous and relational to their lives.
  • Students need to understand what is expected of them and what they should know and be able to do at each grade level, and so should their parents.
  • Students need to understand the Zero Disciplinary Tolerance policy and how infractions lead to underachievement due to suspensions and loss of direct instruction, alternative school placements, or even time in detention centers and criminal records.
  • How is it that a "master" educator like Marva Collins is well-able to circumvent student behavior problems in the classroom. What does she know that other teachers need to know in order to reduce the incidents of disciplinary actions that lead students down the road to prison from the school building. What do PDE and districts need to grasp about the relationship of a students' ability to read by the fourth grade and higher probability they will be ordered to a county detention center when they cannot read; disproportionately if the student is black or Latino.
  • All school board members, administrators, and teachers should receive professional development and training on the Cradle to Prison Pipeline as presented by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), headed by Marian Wright Edelman. CDF has made understanding these matters easier with "America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline Report," which can be downloaded here http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/data/cradle-prison-pipeline-report-2007-full-highres.html Further the CDF researched the status of Pennsylvania's students and provides a fact sheet that can be viewed online here: http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/data/state-data-repository/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/cradle-prison-pipeline-pennsylvania-2009-fact-sheet.pdf.

A final word on exit exams by Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak,

“In the end, all of us will achieve our common goal of ensuring Pennsylvania produces high school graduates who can compete with students from across the country and around the world”