What Does A High School Diploma Mean?

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent. The school board has begun to tighten graduation requirements in effort to keep kids from arriving to college unprepared. Meanwhile, New Haven’s experimental high school is going straight to the Capitol for a fundamental fix to the same problem.

In two separate moves that took place this month, the New Haven Public Schools and its union-run “turnaround” experiment, High School in the Community, took steps to tackle the same problem: Too many kids are passing through city schools without acquiring the skills they need to take basic college courses.

One startling study found that 89 percent of New Haven Public School graduates who enroll in Connecticut public colleges and universities needed to catch up in English and math before they can start earning credits.

That’s partially a reflection of the state’s rules for who needs to take remedial courses—rules that are being dramatically overhauled.

But it’s also a reflection of a challenge for which school officials are taking more responsibility as the city’s school reform drive moves to hold high schools accountable for how their kids fare in college.

School officials on Monday unveiled a few changes to its graduation requirements, including adding one year of technology and of world history; two years of study in the same foreign language; and four years of math instead of just three. The technology class will be required beginning with the Class of 2016.

Overall, the district bumped up the total credits needed from 22 to 25.5. Individual schools already set their own requirements above the district’s mandated minimum levels. Many magnet schools were already meeting these standards, noted Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli, who presented the changes before the school board.

The changes aim to align the city with new admission rules set to take effect in 2015 at state universities, Canelli said.

“Part of this is to cut down the number of students who have to take remedial education going into college,” explained Superintendent Reggie Mayo.

The announcement prompted a discussion about how kids fare after leaving city high schools, and what their diplomas really mean.

“How do you demonstrate mastery of these courses?” Mayor John DeStefano asked.

Unlike places like New York, Connecticut has no standardized test that kids have to pass to leave high school. Sophomores must take the Connecticut Academic Performance Test; if they fail it they make it up by completing a project. The district has its own quarterly assessments, which factor into a kid’s grade in a given course. But ultimately the diploma is based on each teacher’s determination of whether a kid has passed a given class, where passing is anything higher than an F.

DeStefano asked how well New Haven’s high school curriculum prepare kids for success at the colleges it most frequently sends students to—Gateway Community College, Southern Connecticut State University, and the University of Connecticut. Does the school system track kids’ success in college by subject area?

The answer is no—the school system would need to have individual contracts with each university, said Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries. DeStefano urged the city to start examining this data, either through the school board or New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program.

A New Kind Of Diploma?

Meanwhile, High School in the Community (HSC), the city’s union-run turnaround experiment, is taking a more radical approach to the problem—one that will require a change in state legislation.

Following similar efforts elsewhere in New England, HSC is converting to a new way of learning where kids will no longer be able to skate through school with Ds. Starting with this year’s freshmen, students now have to show mastery of set skills, such as factoring polynomials or writing a persuasive essay, before moving up in a given class or grade. The school is getting rid of the usual As and Bs and overhauling report cards to reflect whether kids have mastered these skills.

The whole experiment aims to result in a diploma that “means something”: In order to graduate, students will have to prove their competence on set skills in every subject, said HSC Building Leader (aka principal) Erik Good (pictured).

HSC is the furthest along of a group of nine schools in Connecticut adopting this model, called “competency-based” or “mastery-based” learning. The school is following a national shift: Schools in Colorado, Oregon and Alaska have already made the switch, as well as the entire states of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

Right now, however, Connecticut law is lagging behind the movement, said Larry Schaefer, a senior staff associate with Connecticut Association Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) who works with an organization that helps schools switch to mastery-based learning. State law defines a high school credit in terms of time: “a 40-minute class period for each school day of a school year.” The law allows two exceptions for credits earned in college or online.

The law reflects what Schaefer calls the old way of doing things. In the traditional model, Schaefer said, time is fixed and learning is variable: each kid sits through each subject and grade level for the same amount of time; some learn a little, and others learn a lot.

In the new model Schaefer supports, learning is fixed but time is variable—students learn at their own pace, which means they may take five or six years to finish high school, or just three if they choose to work hard. At the end, all students will emerge with the same foundation of skills, Schaefer said.

To reflect this change in mentality, HSC aims to revamp its diploma. Doing so will take a change in state law.

So Schaefer and Good hit the state Capitol to make a pitch to lawmakers.

Good testified before the Education Committee on March 15 in favor of House Bill 6624. The bill, entitled “An Act Concerning Minor Revisions To The Education Statutes,” would allow schools to award “credits” not just through seat time, but through “a demonstration of mastery based on competency and performance standards, adopted by the State Board of Education.”

Good said he outlined for lawmakers how the current system has been failing kids. “In our population, our kids come with a variety of impediments” that have gotten in the way of learning, Good said. Students at HSC are majority black or Hispanic; most come from low-income families. Seventeen percent are officially designated as having special needs, the highest of the city’s nine traditional high schools.

“Our kids come unprepared for high school, work hard for four years, but still at the end of four years,” don’t have the skills they need to succeed after high school, Good said in an interview this week at the school.

He said the mastery-based system is about “not sending kids to college who are not ready for college work.”

Good said by overhauling the graduation requirements at HSC, the school plans to create a diploma that “says to kids—you have completed high school with a course of study. You are ready for college or career.”

HSC has some allies in its quest: the bill Good testified in favor of was authored by, and endorsed by, the co-chairs of the Education Committee.

And the state Department of Education endorsed the idea in an email to the Independent Wednesday. “We are supportive of testing the idea of mastery-based systems,” said spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly. “It’s an exciting concept with great potential. The idea needs to be fleshed out—but to accomplish that we need to let districts experiment and show us the way. It’s important that the State Board of Education be empowered to create a framework in order to guide this process.”

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