Let’s not abandon high academic standards

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A grammar school phys ed teacher once told my brother, “Gardner, if you were an octopus, you’d strangle yourself.” Unfortunately, I share his level of physical coordination.

When we were in school, teams were selected by a humiliating process—the teacher would pick the two best athletes and they would pick, one student at a time, from the rest of the class. The process was intended to create balanced competition but was unpleasant for those of us picked last.

While I cannot condone the public shaming, it didn’t change the fact that I needed a lot of help to improve (which I sometimes received from sympathetic teachers). Simply pretending that I could run, hit and field as well as most of my classmates would not have helped me or the team.

New York has a long tradition of setting standards for a high school diploma—students who cannot clear the bar go back to the coach for more practice. The first exit exams for high school students statewide were administered in 1878. We’ve been adjusting the standards and the content ever since. 

The exams were considered by some to be too difficult, so the state introduced the Regents Competency Exams in 1979, creating a second tier. Yet by 1995, it seemed that far too many students were taking the easier route to a diploma and New York’s commissioner of education, Richard Mills, set out a challenge: He proposed that all students should be expected to achieve at high levels and scheduled the elimination of the two-track system.

It is one thing to set a target but quite another to achieve it. New York’s Education Department can set standards and create assessments to match, but is unable to change the culture and practice in the state’s locally-controlled schools or change the socioeconomic factors that strongly correlate with student achievement. 

Mills’ target pass rate for all students was delayed and delayed until finally taking hold in 2012. Unfortunately, this corresponded with the botched rollout of the Common Core standards—the pass rate for the Algebra Regents exam, for example, dropped by 10 percentage points, adding to the chaos.

In 2014, the Regents decided that students could graduate with only four exams, substituting other work for the fifth. Students with disabilities were initially granted greater flexibility in scoring, then allowed to graduate without passing any of the Regents exams. See an informative overview of the history of the Regents requirements at Chalkbeat.

Recent calls for more revision, including comments from Chancellor Betty Rosa, have raised the notion of improving graduation rates by eliminating the state-run exit exams altogether. I may not be any good at sports, but I am pretty sure that making it easier to score doesn’t improve athletes’ skills.

A cursory look at statistics reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress from the U.S. Department of Education reveals that New York is in no position to lower its standards. New York’s best ranking in 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math is 25th for 4th grade reading and 8th-grade math. Neighboring (and competitive) states like Massachusetts and, yes, New Jersey routinely score in the top five. New Yorkers hate to lose to New Jersey.

New York’s middle-of-the-pack status would not be so worrying if the U.S. led the world in student achievement. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development publishes the results of an international assessment called the Program for International Student Assessment. In the combined average for math, science and reading, the U.S. ranks 31st, just ahead of Latvia.

We are justifiably concerned about inequality, but conferring diplomas just for staying in school is misguided. Signs at one demonstration declared “Diplomas for all!” We forget that the diploma is a means to a larger end and cannot be the goal for most of our children. A diploma is meaningless if it doesn’t prepare students for what comes next.

That may not be college for everyone—many meaningful and family-sustaining careers don’t require a college degree. We’ve better data on college-going grads, however, and we know that a large share of them flounder after high school. Far too many begin their college careers in remedial education—at an annual cost of $1.3 billion nationally, according to a study conducted by the Center for American Progress. This report estimates that 40 percent to 60 percent of first-year students take remedial courses in English, math or both.

Just as troubling is the number students who manage to survive their first year in college, but either drop out or struggle to finish on time. Statistics published by the Chronicle of Higher Education show that only 39 percent of students attending New York’s four-year public colleges graduated in four years (of the 2013 cohort), although an additional 20 percent completed a degree in six years. 

These stats are worse for students of color: Slightly less than a quarter of New York’s black and Hispanic four-year public college students get a degree in four years. Just over half of black and Hispanic students fail to get a degree in six years. How many leave school with nothing but debt to show for their labor?

New York’s high school diploma already sets the bar too low. Although periodic revision of the Regents graduation standards is appropriate, our imperfect efforts to improve academic achievement for all of New York’s students must continue. “Diplomas for all” will fail our children.

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon’s opinion editor.

One thought on “Let’s not abandon high academic standards

  1. The Grammar School comment caught my eye, so I read this article with interest. I went to an English Grammar School, after passing the eleven plus exam (at the age of eleven) in 1957.
    The idea was to weed out the top five percent of the nation for grooming to go to university.

    We were England’s first Baby Boomers, but someone forgot to realise that the uni’s would be flooded with candidates, so at final exams, some five years later, they raised the stakes and made passing very much harder. Very few folks got the good result the school was used to seeing.

    I detested the school! The teachers in the main were extremely boring! There were few practical things to do, and even those were pitifully taught. We had a metalworking room, yet in the five years I was there, I never saw the forge used once, or even lit up.

    For many sessions a week, we poured over Shakespeare dirges, and I felt like one of the characters in the Peanuts cartoon where the adults were just saying ‘waah-waah-waah’ all the time. I had switched off.

    Other lessons were similar, British History was all about Royalty and their dates. Whereas my own family history went back almost a thousand years, if only someone had told me how to look for it back then.

    We were told to remember so much trivia, like the intricacies of French verbs, instead of actually learning how to speak the language.

    And now I really regard that much of my time spent at the school as a waste of time and brain space. After all, I have Siri on my computer and Google search engine, and an Amazon Alexi on my sideboard. All knowledge is there, why should anyone try to remember this stuff?

    So, if that is the case, why are we still using outdated methods of teaching, that is costing every taxpayer a fortune? Why are we bussing kids to schools where they learn bad habits from their peers, catch all sorts of infectious diseases, and learn to be unsociable?

    So many kids are leaving their education with the same worthless bits of paper, no decent job to go to and a mountain of debt for all their trouble. Yet they seem ill equipped to fend for themselves.

    And what is this HUGE fuss about sports? I hated sports, mainly because I have a condition called amblyopia (ask Siri what it means) and ball games were extra hard for me. The thought of kicking a leather ball around a muddy field on a wet and rainy day in England sent shivers down my spine, literally.

    I particularly disliked the aggression and ‘competitive’ nature of most sports, and I believe that this brings out the ‘animal’ in people. After all there are only winners and losers in these games, and although you can say there is cooperation between team mates, the ‘goals’ are the ultimate defeat of an enemy. For every ‘cheer’ you hear from the sidelines, there is a groan. Fifty percent of those playing and watching are disgruntled at the outcome.

    I think sports makes enemies and trains people to be antisocial bullies.

    Just imagine if these two factions were to join together and take on some different projects where they complete something to both parties satisfaction, so everyone received benefit and pleasure from it, wouldn’t that make the world a better place?

    There has to be something better than kicking a ball around, surely?

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