College & Workforce Readiness

A Quiet Crisis: Unprepared for High Stakes

By Lynn Olson — April 18, 2001 22 min read
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Anna Rios dislikes the idea that she has to pass a statewide test to earn a high school diploma. Still, the slight 15-year-old, in jeans and a baseball cap, is staying after school to bone up on the algebra on the Massachusetts Assessment of Comprehensive Skills, which this year’s sophomores must pass by 2003 to graduate. “I know I need help,” she explained, “so I decided to come for the after-school program.”

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Besides the after-school sessions for some 64 students at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical High School here, the school offers a breakfast club that provides academic enrichment. And there’s a support group in which upperclassmen who have already passed the exam help 10th graders planning to take the test this spring.

For those 9th graders who start high school more than two years behind in reading or math, the school has created a separate academy to bring them up to speed as quickly as possible. Summer school also awaits students who are struggling academically.

The wide array of offerings is all part of a full-court press to ensure that Putnam’s 1,350 students—80 percent of whom are poor and 80 percent of whom are African-American or Hispanic—graduate with the skills the state has deemed essential to succeed in college or in the workplace.

Despite the intensive push, bringing all of Putnam’s students up to the state standards remains a formidable task. Among 10th graders who took the exam last year, 94 percent failed the English section, 95 percent failed in mathematics, and 91 percent fell short on the science portion.

Similar scenarios are playing out around the country, as the drive to hold high school students to more rigorous academic standards and tests reveals a quiet crisis: A large proportion of students who are already in high school are not yet doing high-school-level work.

“What you’re seeing is the first wave of kids caught in the transition to the new requirements,” said Robert Schwartz, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass., that promotes states’ standards-based initiatives. “You’ve got a lot of states, like Massachusetts, that are now very much in the scrambling-around mode, doing after-the-fact intervention, catch-up stuff.”

The introduction of more rigorous academic standards and high-stakes tests has spurred high schools to rethink their math and reading curricula for students in general.

But it poses the greatest challenge for those students furthest behind.

“This is actually a problem that is on a collision course,” warned Anthony Alvarado, the chancellor of instruction for the 143,000-student San Diego schools. “The historic ways of dealing with this issue is a kid would either drop out, or a kid would pass the coursework, but it would be watered down, and the diploma would not be worth much. Now, if you have exit exams in which you have to do reading and math at a certain grade level, and places stick to it, we have a major problem.”

‘For Other Kids, Not Them’

On the most recent 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress, 31 percent scored “below basic” in mathematics, and 23 percent performed below basic in reading—meaning that those seniors have yet to master the knowledge and skills considered essential at their grade level.

The problem is far worse in urban districts and in schools serving high concentrations of poor and minority students. Large numbers of incoming freshmen in such schools may be reading or doing math years below grade level.

“In many of the nonselective urban high schools we work with, the average reading score of entering 9th graders is 5th grade, so they’re four years behind, and that’s the average,” said James M. McPartland, the director of the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. In mathematics, he added, the problem is even worse because students often have lost any confidence that they can do math. “They think it’s for other kids,” he said, “not for them.”

To address the problem, schools and districts are experimenting with a variety of solutions: extending the school day and year; creating smaller, more supportive learning environments; adding separate 9th grade academies, particularly for struggling students; providing some students with double or even triple doses of reading and math instruction; and changing the way courses are taught.

But to date, little research and fewer resources have been devoted to accelerating instruction for high school students who are severely behind. Although high schools enroll about 33 percent of low-income U.S. students, for example, they receive only 15 percent of Title I money, the nation’s largest program for compensatory education.

In Massachusetts, the legislature has committed $80 million over the past three years to support students who are at risk of failing the MCAS. Two-thirds of the districts there have used the money for some combination of before- and after- programs and summer school. The state also is trying to recruit thousands of adult tutors to work with students.

“In terms of sheer magnitude, the commonwealth has never seen an effort such as this before,” concludes a report by MassInsight Education, a Boston-based nonprofit group that supports the state’s standards initiatives.

Such programs typically try to help students by providing them with extra time in smaller classes, where they can get more individual attention. In some cases, the programs also use instructional techniques different from those used during the regular school day.

At Putnam Vocational Technical High, for example, students like Ms. Rios work on engine blocks to solve mathematical problems related to volume, ratios, and algebraic functions. “It’s all MCAS math that they have to have,” said teacher Charles Pignatare, “and they can put their hands on it.”

High school students who participated in Springfield’s summer school program last year showed an average increase of 1.3 years in reading achievement. And students like Ms. Rios, who complete the after-school program, have also shown significant gains in reading and mathematics on standardized tests.

But getting high school students—and even teachers—to show up after school, on Saturdays, or during the summer has been a huge challenge here and elsewhere.

Only one-fourth of the high school students who registered for Springfield’s after-school program in English or math last year completed the course. And last fall, only two of the city’s four high schools offered the program because not enough teachers signed up. Although the 26,400-student district offered a Saturday program for teenagers, it could fill only one class.

Many of the students have transportation problems, school officials say, or must work after school and on weekends to contribute to their families’ income.

Maureen A. Harris, the assistant director of curriculum and instructional practices for the Boston schools, said more than 3,000 4th and 5th graders there attend after-school programs, while only 800 high school students do. “It should be the reverse,” she lamented.

In San Diego last summer, only 21 percent of eligible high school students enrolled in summer school. And no-show rates of 30 percent or higher are typical.

“It’s a big issue,” said John H. Portz, an associate professor of political science and education at Northeastern University, who is evaluating Boston’s efforts. “Even as we struggle to get these kids who are in classes to do better, we’ve got a whole group that’s not even in the room. That’s frightening.”

Moreover, he argues, while summer school and extended-day programs are a good start, they’re not enough to bring many students up to the levels that are needed and to keep them there.

A Crucial Year

As a result, many schools and districts are trying to reshape the freshman year of high school to provide students who are seriously behind with an on-ramp to the regular college-preparatory curriculum.

About 140 of the 9th graders at Putnam, for example, began this school year in a “preparatory” academy for students who arrive in high school reading or doing mathematics below the 7th grade level. Those students take three focused periods in reading, writing, and math every day in classes of no more than 20 students. Each class is co-taught by an academic teacher and a vocational teacher who can help integrate the technical skills that drew students to the vocational-technical school in the first place.

In addition to small-group instruction, the students spend time on computer-assisted lessons, which begin with basic decoding skills and work through reading- comprehension strategies. As soon as they are performing at the 7th grade level, they are moved into English 9, Algebra 1, and other college-preparatory courses, even if it’s midsemester. They also continue to receive mentoring and support from the academy teachers after they shift into the regular program.

Of the students who began the program this school year, 105 have completed the program so far.

“The goal is up and out as fast as possible,” said Putman High Principal Ann M. Southworth.

In Boston, where more than half of all regular education students failed the MCAS last year, the 64,000-student school system has created a “transition program” for the lowest-performing 3rd, 6th, and 9th graders. The $21 million initiative includes summer school, an after-school component, and double doses of English and math for incoming 9th graders.

Starting next school year, the 432,000-student Chicago district also plans to provide double periods of reading and math instruction for 9th graders needing extra help. The extra instruction is part of a recently announced initiative that will let some students take five years to earn a regular high school diploma.

‘Laser Instruction’

But simply providing more time for reading and math is not enough. The bigger question is what happens inside that structure.

“Adding a tutoring program, when the regular school class is taught from an algebra textbook that only the top 10 percent of kids are able to learn from, is not the way we’re going to do this,” said Melissa Roderick, an associate professor in the school of social-service administration at the University of Chicago. “There’s got to be massive curriculum change. It’s got to start in the classroom, with pedagogy.”

Some programs, like High Schools That Work, developed by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, emphasize using more hands-on and applied techniques to teach students college- preparatory content.

Other programs are crafting new curricula designed to equip high school students with essential literacy and math skills on an accelerated basis. The Talent Development High School, a model created by Mr. McPartland and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins, includes a separate 9th grade academy with 90-minute periods of English and math instruction, as well as a freshman seminar that helps students work on social, technology, and organizational skills.

Within that structure, the program has established a “strategic-reading course” and a “transition to advanced mathematics” course that emphasize more hands-on and cooperative learning than the traditional high school classroom and more direct instruction in comprehension and problem- solving skills.

“Fear of the test, I don’t think, is a motivator,” Mr. McPartland said. “The materials themselves, the stuff students are getting in the classroom, is where the motivation has to come from. Give them good stuff that they can handle, and they will respond and grow in turn.”

In the English class, for example, teachers begin by reading aloud to students for 20 minutes and thinking aloud as they read, so that the teachers can provide models of good comprehension. That’s followed by a mini-lesson in which teachers provide direct instruction on a particular comprehension strategy; guided discussion in which students work together in teams; and 10 minutes of sustained, silent reading from easy-to-read, high-interest materials.

Studies have found that students in the program gain approximately two years of academic growth in one year, as measured by standardized tests, Mr. McPartland said. “So they’re on a trajectory,” he said, “if we can keep that up every year, to be right where they should be at the end of high school.”

At Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, two teachers are field-testing a course for struggling readers created by America’s Choice, a whole-school-reform effort. The double-period class is designed to immerse high school students who are two to four grade levels behind in reading in a literature-rich environment that looks and operates more like a traditional elementary or middle school classroom.

There’s a library that includes young-adult fiction and fantasy novels, a comfortable sofa for independent reading in one corner, and workstations where students can practice the skills they’ve learned as a group.

At one point, teacher Eugenio Longoria-Saenz reads aloud a chapter of Taking Sides by Gary Soto and thinks through difficult passages and vocabulary with the students. Many of the students, he notes, have not had explicit instruction in reading since elementary school, have little practice reading, and tend to avoid it except on demand. “My goal is that they become habitual readers,” he said, “even within the context of school.”

Like many programs for struggling readers, the class period is broken into short segments of 20 minutes or less that include mini-lessons in specific reading techniques, time for students to read and write independently, and oral reading by both teachers and students. Students also tutor kindergartners at a neighboring elementary school in order to practice the skills they’ve learned in class.

The design team hopes to begin piloting a math curriculum in the fall, and it’s also putting together a “beyond the bells” component that includes after-school tutoring, Saturday classes, and a summer school for students who are struggling academically.

“The class is really built around a base of rituals and routines that are designed to mimic what good readers and writers do,” explained Walter G. Gibson, a senior associate with the National Center on Education and the Economy, the Washington-based nonprofit organization that founded America’s Choice. “Most of the kids coming into high school can decode; they just can’t make meaning out of words. And the more sophisticated the text, the more difficulty they have. So the transition from narrative text to complicated textbook language for these kids is virtually impossible.”

But Mary E. Curtis, who designed a literacy intervention program for teenagers at Boys Town in Nebraska, cautioned that for many high school students who are struggling to read, the problem is not just reading comprehension.

“We found that for one out of 10, the problem was decoding,” she said. “But for one out of eight, the problem was fluency. It was the rate at which they were able to decode. Very often, people talk about decoding and comprehension as being an either-or type of thing. For the kids that we worked with, some of them read so slowly that by the time they got to the end of the sentence, they couldn’t remember how the sentence started, so that affected the comprehension.”

The four-course Boys Town Reading Curriculum that Ms. Curtis helped create is based on the late Harvard University educator Jeanne S. Chall’s stage theory of reading development.

The first semester-long course, intended for teenagers reading below the 4th grade level, focuses on the relationships between the most common letter combinations and sounds. The second course, designed for adolescents reading at the 4th to 6th grade levels, promotes fluency in recognizing words and their meanings. The third course zeroes in on intensive vocabulary development. And the fourth course, which is geared to students reading at the 8th grade level or above, helps students use reading and writing to learn academic content.

“We often describe it to teachers as laser instruction,” said Ms. Curtis, who now directs the center for special education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. “We’re only spending time on those things that we think are most critical for moving these kids to the next level. Our goal was to get a year’s worth of growth over a semester’s worth of instruction. We had to have that in order to catch them up. “And we were successful in getting that kind of accelerated growth for about two-thirds of students.”

Retracking the Curriculum

In designing such programs, however, developers face several challenges.

Perhaps the biggest is that high school teachers are not trained to teach reading and often view it as beneath them. Many also lack deep knowledge of mathematics.

“Most English teachers say, ‘Give me a student who knows how to read and write, and I will teach them English,’ ” said Mr. Alvarado of San Diego.

His district is expanding a program that provides double and even triple doses of reading and math instruction to 9th and 10th graders performing significantly below grade level. In addition to a student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1 and extra money for curriculum materials, teachers in the program receive intensive, ongoing professional development.

The district also has proposed converting the traditional department chairs at the high schools into full-time literacy and math supervisors who could provide on-site support to teachers in learning new instructional practices. The Boston district, meanwhile, has hired literacy and math specialists to work in its high schools, both to tutor students and to coach teachers.

The second problem is a lack of appropriate materials that are easy enough for students to read yet engage their interest. “You can’t use elementary school materials,” Mr. McPartland of Johns Hopkins said. “The kids will not relate to it. We did not find a lot of good stuff, frankly.”

A third concern is how to provide struggling students with intensive, focused instruction in reading and math without reducing their access to college-prep material in the other academic subjects, or preventing them from accumulating the number of course credits required to graduate.

An evaluation of Chicago’s efforts to redesign its high schools, by Alfred G. Hess, a professor of education at Northwestern University, warned that a focus on reading instruction in grades 9-12 was detracting from the time teachers spent on academic content in subjects such as science and social studies.

“The challenge really is not to retrack the curriculum,” said Cynthia L. Greenleaf, the associate director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd, a federally financed research center in San Francisco.

In the spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review, Ms. Greenleaf and her colleague, Ruth Schoenbach, caution that providing high school students with isolated, basic- skills instruction could increasingly pull poor and minority students off the academic track and misdiagnoses the problem.

The real issue, they argue, is helping teenagers acquire and use the complex comprehension and self-monitoring strategies needed to read and make sense of subject-area texts. Their Reading Apprenticeship program helps subject-area teachers model expert reading and problem-solving within their disciplines, such as science or social studies, rather than teaching reading as a separate course. Students in the program gained on average two years of reading growth within one academic year on a standardized test of reading comprehension, while engaging in rigorous academic work.

“All the correlational research shows that the content of what’s being taught determines what kids learn,” Mr. McPartland said. “They can’t learn, if they’re not taught it. So they’ve got to get Shakespeare, they’ve got to get the good algebra, rather than the business math. But you have to supplement it with all the skill building. It has to go hand-in-hand.”

Some experts argue, in fact, that the best strategy for helping low performers is simply to enroll them in college-prep courses, even if they fail.

One evaluation by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that students who took special courses designed to be a bridge to college-preparatory math learned more than students in general-math or business-math courses. But they still didn’t learn as much as comparable students who took the more traditional college-prep courses.

“In terms of student achievement, it’s better to flunk a college-prep course than it is to take and pass a general math course,” argued Andrew C. Porter, an author of the study and the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. “It doesn’t sound that great, but it’s the best we know to do right now.”

For another, smaller group of students with severe academic and social problems, districts may need to invest in alternative education settings, said Ms. Roderick of the University of Chicago. In Chicago, she said, many students who are far behind in reading and math but are not special-needs students go into separate 8th grade transition programs and never make it into high school. “It’s very clear that transition-center kids are dropping out at very high rates,” she said, yet they are not eligible to enroll in alternative schools until age 16. “I’m not sure those kids are ever going to make it in high school programs,” Ms. Roderick said. “They tend to need enormous amounts of support and intervention and resources.”

‘You Can Do This’

Some proponents of standards-based school improvement argue that it’s precisely the pressure of passing high school exit tests that has finally led schools and districts to focus on their lowest-performing students.

“I actually think that the pressure of high-stakes tests, more than the pressure of standards on the shelf, is what’s causing all the flurry of activity now in high schools,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which promotes high academic achievement for poor and minority youngsters. “Frankly, I welcome the pressure.”

In Massachusetts, said Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll, “I feel that as a state, we’ve done an awful lot in terms of support. Now, I really do believe it’s up to the student. We think part of the ramifications of a high- stakes test is that many young people who really weren’t as motivated as they should be all of a sudden become motivated.”

But others argue that, for students who started so far behind the eight ball when they entered high school, the tests will provide just one more instance of failure. They also worry that the tests are providing perverse incentives for schools to mislabel teenagers as special education students, to counsel them out of high school and into General Educational Development programs, or not to enroll them in the first place.

“The exit exam is a huge mistake,” contended Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, “because it’s going to predictively hit disadvantaged kids in a very negative way, and because the playing field isn’t being leveled in the high school or pre-high school.”

In New York state, for example, students in this year’s graduating class must pass the state regents’ exams in both English and math to earn a diploma. The most recent results show that more than nine in 10 students have passed the English exam, and that more than seven in 10 have passed the math test.

In New York City, though, a recent report found that only 55 percent of the district’s students had met the math requirement. That means as many as 15,500 students may not graduate with their peers. The report by the district’s division of assessment and accountability also warned that the more rigorous exam requirements appeared to be elevating the dropout rate.

But New York state Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills said the city historically has graduated only about half its high school students on time.

“I just don’t accept the idea that the standards or the exams are in some way causing the problem,” he said. “In fact, they are really one of the elements of a turnaround. Youngsters who arrive in high school without the preparation obviously need extra help, and the regents [board] require that.”

“If people were to somehow engineer a pullback, the problem would go away, but only on paper,” he added. “The graduates still wouldn’t know enough for work or citizenship.”

“I think we’re seeing some very positive things,” said Leslie Santee Siskin, an associate professor at the Harvard education school. She’s been studying the effects of standards-based accountability on urban high schools in four states, including New York.

“We’re seeing, for example, more kids taking algebra who never would have reached it,” Ms. Siskin continued. “There are lots of teachers who are working hard to try to teach new groups of students new materials. We’re seeing that explicit standards help teachers, and that teachers believe that there should be high standards.”

“But,” she added, “we’re seeing a test pressure that’s pretty frightening in a lot of schools for students and for teachers.”

Here in Springfield, students are getting mixed messages about how much they should even strive to pass the exams. Last month, the City Council and the school board endorsed a measure proposed by the city’s mayor to exempt the city from the MCAS graduation requirement for three years. Mayor Michael Albano is seeking passage of the measure in the Massachusetts legislature because he does not believe that high-stakes testing should be the sole factor in determining whether a student receives a diploma.

“So the message to the kids is, the mayor says we don’t have to take the test,” said Mary Mushok, the principal of extended programs for the district. “The kids are getting mixed messages from the government; they’re getting mixed messages from political groups.”

Ms. Southworth, the principal of Putnam Vocational Technical High, wonders all the time about how her students will do on the next round of state testing this spring. But she’s convinced that, for now, holding firm is the way to go, although she would like to see alternative ways for students to show their knowledge and skills.

“I think for huge institutions, like the schools, it’s been hard to get everybody lined up,” she said. “But I know if they don’t hold the kids accountable for this test, we’ll never know what they know.”

“So I think it’s a good discussion, and it’s hard for the kids when they feel like failures, but the message we’re giving them is, ‘Yes, you can do this.’”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as A Quiet Crisis: Unprepared For High Stakes


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