Ah, the power of the pen: Every so often, it’s still evident. The story behind the latest example begins November 27, when the New York Times reported that a man once convicted of mail fraud had founded a correspondence school that helps failing teen athletes earn easy A’s and B’s for college admission. The unaccredited Miami-based University High School charges $399 for diplomas earned in four to six weeks, no classes or timed tests required. It claims to have six teachers on staff. But some of the 28 athletes who’d taken the courses over the past two years—raising their GPAs enough to get into sports-friendly colleges, including Division I football schools—remembered dealing solely with the school’s current owner, Michael Kinney, who was arrested on a marijuana possession charge two years ago and is wanted on a bench warrant. The school’s founder, Stanley Simmons, served time in prison in the late 1980s for his involvement with a college diploma mill in Arizona. Although the NCAA expressed concern over University High in the Times piece, its policy since 2000 has been to allow high school athletes to use correspondence schools—and to allow those same schools to determine the eligibility of their own courses.
But just two days later—after the Florida High School Athletic Association said it was investigating the school—the NCAA president condemned “diploma mill” schools and announced its own investigation. “It’s this type of school, not just for athletics, but overall, that must be shut down,” Myles Brand told the Miami Herald. NCAA officials had said to the Times that they, as one spokeswoman put it, were “not the educational accreditation police,” so that may be why Brand was urging local and state authorities to take legal action. Meanwhile, a special NCAA committee will, by June, deliver recommendations on how to evaluate such schools. “I’m led to believe,” Brand said, that University High “is not a unique case.”
“Unique” is one word that describes how the U.S. Secretary of Education suggests we interpret the discrepancies between state and federal standardized test scores. Whereas Tennessee, for instance, claims that 87 percent of its 8th graders scored at or above the proficiency level on its math tests, the feds claim that based on NAEP results, only 21 percent are proficient. This kind of thing, happening across the country, was inevitable, seeing as the feds use NAEP as their primary assessment tool while states are allowed to apply their own tests to demonstrate proficiency. Critics argue that this loophole allows states to administer too-easy exams and that national tests are the only solution. But Education Secretary Margaret Spellings won’t criticize state tests, suggesting instead that reporters compare apples with oranges when evaluating results. Piggybacking on that theme, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education said: “NAEP’s ‘basic’ [ranking] is comparable to our ‘proficient.’ Now whether Tennessee’s test is stringent enough is something that we’re reviewing constantly. Nobody here would say we have a perfect test.”
Assessing qualified teachers is also a work in progress, and districts in the Philadelphia region are trying something new: allowing students to offer feedback with colored index cards. In a scene resembling an Olympic event, students in Theresa D’Andrea’s science class at Haverford Middle School now hold up cards indicating whether they understand her lesson. Green is something akin to “yes”; yellow, “maybe”; and red, “no way.” The goal is to measure what’s been learned prior to test day, and it’s perhaps no surprise that the consultant who put the practice in place (backed by a federal grant) works for the Educational Testing Service. A former urban teacher and professor at King’s College London, Dylan William also gives educators tips in other areas. For instance, he recommends grading only a quarter of each kid’s papers and letting students review classmates’ work. D’Andrea, who seems open to all this, explained to her students, “You’re more likely to become more knowledgeable, become smarter, if I can keep track of how you are doing.”
Those students enrolled in the building trades program at Roseville High School in Michigan know how they’re doing; their final projects are brand-new homes. The program, which draws kids from many districts and earns 10 credit hours toward a local community college, covers much of the curriculum. Before one wall is raised on each $180,000 single-family home, math and engineering principles must be studied. And building a house “isn’t just about swinging a hammer; it’s about architecture, engineering, and sales,” explained Mark Andrzjewski, the course’s instructor, whose salary as well the equipment and material costs are covered by the purchase prices. The program has been around for 25 years and now includes 75 students. “I wanted to become a carpenter before I took this class,” said one Roseville High senior. “I came in here thinking I knew a lot, but I’ve learned a lot.”
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