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.