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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

When Should Students Graduate ... And Who Should Decide?

By S.G. Grant — February 01, 2010 5 min read
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As the number of postsecondary degrees increases, the value of a high school diploma decreases. In fact, many observers now argue that career success demands at least a bachelor’s degree. And yet, whether goal or steppingstone, the high school diploma remains a key element of schooling.

The requirements for a diploma have varied over time. What has not changed, however, is the public need to feel confident that graduation from high school represents a real achievement.

But what that achievement encompasses and when students are ready to graduate remain contentious questions. Does graduation represent minimal competency or the mastery of school subject knowledge? Do high school graduates gain the knowledge and skills necessary to lead successful lives, or only those necessary for postsecondary education? These seem like important issues, but two questions most concern me today: When are students ready to graduate, and who should decide?

In response to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, many states have given over to test-makers considerable power to decide these questions. Students in states like New York must pass a prescribed set of courses, but they do not graduate unless they pass the required state exams. Several problems surround the use of graduation exams, but the most pressing is the idea that a student’s entire high school career could be derailed based on a single test score.

So when should students be eligible to graduate—what set of markers would convince the public that would-be graduates are ready to move on? And who should make that call? Test-makers? Teachers? As a colleague and I reflected on these questions recently, we explored the possibility of a state-level assessment system that would expand teacher, student, and public confidence in and accountability for rich subject-matter knowledge and understanding, thereby mitigating some of the more deleterious effects of a test-driven approach to schooling.

What would happen, we wondered, if state policymakers took themselves largely out of the picture and allowed local, district-based committees to define the assessments that would demonstrate students’ readiness to graduate? Students would still need to sit for and pass the standardized state exams, but those results alone would not determine whether a student was competent and ready to graduate. Instead, state exams and their scores would be part of a larger slate of assessments that gauged students’ knowledge and understanding in more realistic and authentic ways.

One, for example, might be a letter to the editor that demonstrated a student’s ability to describe a local, state, or national issue of importance, take a stand on the issue, and provide evidence to support that stand. Another could be a PowerPoint presentation in which a student explained the changing demographics of his or her neighborhood.

Successfully completing standardized tests and a set of real-world tasks makes sense to us as a way to build confidence in the meaning of a high school diploma. But the question nags of who should decide whether students are successful on these tasks.

Our suggestion is to draw on committees of teachers, administrators, parents, and community members as examiners. These committees would review students’ school records, their performance on standardized tests, and their performance on the real-world tasks, and then query students about the nature and implications of their work. It would be these committees, then, rather than a set of course grades and test scores, that would decide if and when the students in their communities were ready to graduate.

The strength and value of this proposal derive from the notion that no single measure can or should determine students’ knowledge and understanding, their class standing, or their graduation from high school. Real accountability for students’ educational success demands a measure of time, attention, interest, and investment. These attributes seem ill-represented in a top-down, state-controlled assessment program. Surrounding standardized tests with a palette of more relevant markers could undercut some of the resistance to and discomfort with standard measures, and could underscore the kind of accountability for educating all students evident in the rhetoric of reform.

Simultaneously creating more confidence in the assessments students take and more accountability among all community actors might seem Pollyannaish to the casual observer. But I would offer as proof of its viability the work of Deborah Meier and her staff at the Central Park East schools in New York City, as described in her 1995 book The Power of Their Ideas.

Handed responsibility for a group of children essentially abandoned by city teachers and administrators, Meier rejected the tactics that many of her peers had embraced: locking down the schools and mandating a basic-skills curriculum taught through direct instruction. Instead, she hired ambitious teachers and gave them authority over the taught curriculum. She reached out to parents and community members and convinced them that they had a stake in their children’s education. And she created an assessment program that offered students options but tied those options to a set of high expectations for success.

Central Park East students met all state curriculum requirements, but they were eligible to graduate only after they presented and defended portfolios of their work in front of committees of teachers, parents, and community evaluators. One might suppose that these students would have been given an easy pass in order to make the schools and community look good. The data suggest otherwise: Not only did record numbers of Central Park East students go on to college, but their graduation rate indicated that they were well-positioned to succeed academically.

The vibrancy of such an approach derives in part from the active investment in students’ educational success by a wide range of school and community members. Making decisions about students’ success based primarily on state-mandated and -scored exams disenfranchises the people who have the greatest stake in their schools—students, teachers, parents, and community members. Bringing these groups together and offering them a venue in which they can play an active and accountable role in educating all children could go some distance toward real reform of schooling.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as When Should Students Graduate ... And Who Should Decide?

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