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Op-Ed: The Secondary Reforms We Need

Our secondary schools need resources and innovation far more than they need more standards and tests.

After 30 years teaching in an urban New Jersey high school and five years as the Director of the Secondary Reform Project at the Education Law Center, I have some clear ideas about what New Jersey secondary schools need to improve preparation for college and careers, close achievement gaps, raise high school graduation and college participation rates, and decrease dropouts.

We need reform that provides innovative, challenging opportunities for our best students and gap-closing supports for our struggling ones. We need theme-based programs; real-world partnerships with communities, families, employers, colleges and universities; performance assessment alternatives to standardized testing; improved professional practice; and multiple pathways to success. We need smaller, more supportive learning environments for both staff and students and ways to make sure that high expectations are linked to the supports and opportunities needed to meet them. These initiatives should be at the heart of secondary reform.

What we don't need are more one-size-fits-all plans for state standards and high stakes tests that fail to address the real challenges our secondary schools face. Yet that is pretty much what we've gotten from recent rounds of disjointed reform efforts.

If the governor's College and Career Readiness Task Force, now preparing its report and recommendations, wants to give new direction to urgently needed secondary reform efforts it should consider the following:

The most immediate issue is what to do about New Jersey's high school graduation assessments for next year, since the state's contract with Measurement, Inc. the test vendor for the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) and the AHSA (Alternative High School Assessment) is due to expire. At this late date, there are only two feasible options: continue to use the HSPA and AHSA as graduation tests under a revised contract with MI or another test vendor, or suspend the use of these tests pending development of new assessments or a new process that will take at least several years.

What must be avoided is any attempt to impose a new set of high stakes assessments without full public and legislative review and credible field-testing. It's relevant to recall the chaos that resulted two years ago from the department's poorly implemented transition from the Special Review Assessment to the Alternative High School Assessment without adequate preparation. That disruptive episode affected thousands of students and families in hundreds of New Jersey school districts. Replacing the HSPA with some other tests or process would affect far greater numbers.

It's also essential to preserve the multiple pathways to a high school diploma that have helped sustain New Jersey's high graduation rates. Eliminating the AHSA, for example, would have a dramatic and disproportionate impact on at risk, English language learners, and high-poverty students.

The challenge is to sustain high graduation rates while improving the level of preparation for college and careers for all students. It won't help our schools or our communities to respond to concerns about college and career readiness by adopting testing policies that increase dropout rates or push students out of school when there are already over 100,000 young people in NJ between the ages of 18 and 24 not in school and not working (NJ High School Graduation Campaign fact sheet, 2008).

We have never successfully sent more than a third of our high school graduates through to a college degree. Of all adults over the age of 25, only about 28 percent currently have a degree. That includes about 30 percent of whites, 17 percent of African Americans, and 12.6 percent of Hispanics (Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2011). To increase those rates, we must address issues of affordability and access, not just academic preparation. NJ has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the nation, yet we are near the bottom in available in-state seats for incoming college students. We need to change these odds too.

College completion rates for nearly all student subgroups are well below 60 percent, even though colleges start with a selective and relatively motivated student population compared to secondary schools. Similar completion rates in urban high schools are rightly considered a sign of urgently needed reform. The point is that efforts to better align K-12 and post-secondary programs must involve a 360-degree review of what needs to be "aligned" and what needs to be improved on all sides. We need better educational programs for secondary students, not just harder ones. And we need better post-secondary supports for the transition to work, college, and responsible citizenship.

Any plans for raising graduation standards must also be accompanied by a credible study of what it will take to reach them, particularly for schools and students not meeting current standards. As the Center on Education Policy has noted, "The true costs of an exit exam policy are often invisible to state policymakers, because the expenses are being borne mostly by local school districts -- and often by shifting existing funds away from other educational priorities" ("The Hidden Cost of High School Exit Exams," Center on Education Policy, May, 2004)

The Task Force should resist the drive to spend millions on the development and implementation of new tests based on the Common Core standards. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences reviewing the last decade of test-based accountability systems, including the use of high school exit exams, found "little to no positive effect on learning" (Education Week, December 15, 2011). Instead of spending millions more on contracts with commercial testing companies, we should invest in the ability of educators and school leaders to create effective, transparent systems of accountability, with increased roles for classroom and school-based assessments designed to support better teaching and learning.

For example, end-of-course assessments that are collaboratively developed by educators and school leaders can be useful ways of assuring consistency across schools and districts, promoting professional development, and improving instructional practice. Making such assessments a percentage of course grades or including the results on student transcripts can help provide a more complete picture of student progress. But mandating a single set of required courses whose content is rigidly defined by externally imposed standardized exams will drive curriculum and instruction in familiar, counterproductive ways, as we have seen under No Child Left Behind.

Similarly, top-down standardization can undermine the innovation required to promote creative reform at the district and school levels. In New York, the inclusion of a waiver process exempting schools from some state-mandated assessments has allowed an innovative network of "performance consortium schools" to develop alternative assessment approaches subject to external review and validation. These schools have had notable success raising academic performance and improving college-going rates among urban students of color, including special needs populations, over-age under-credited students, and English language learners (Phi Delta Kappan, January 2007). The task force should include in its recommendations an option for schools or groups of schools to pursue performance assessment alternatives as part of an innovative, multiple pathways approach to college and career readiness.

There are other promising alternatives that rely less on standardized testing and more on increasing the capacity of schools to support diverse student populations.

For example, New York's Urban Youth Collaborative and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform developed a proposal for Student Success Centers placed in high-needs school communities. These Success Centers are staffed by first-generation college students from the same schools and communities. They provide younger students with information, coaching, financial aid information, application support, campus trips, and other assistance. The centers provide employment opportunities for recent graduates struggling to meet their own college costs, effective mentoring and guidance to younger students seeking to make college aspirations a reality, and increased capacity to local school programs. These are the kind of investments needed to make college for all a real possibility.

Our secondary schools need resources and innovation far more than they need more standards and tests. New Jersey needs a robust secondary reform effort that promotes excellence and equity while addressing both individual student needs and larger social goals. To create one will take open dialogue and solutions as varied and diverse as the communities our schools serve.

Stan Karp is Director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey's Education Law Center. He taught English and journalism to high school students in Paterson for 30 years. He is also a co-editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.

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