Are New York’s New Diploma Options the Future of the Common Core?

As you may have heard, after New York announced that their test scores under the Common Core dropped a full 30 percent, Obama’s Secretary of Education notoriously singled-out “white suburban moms” as particularly vociferous opponents of the Common Core standards – which are coming soon to a school near you. Secretary Duncan, in trying to belittle their maternal opposition, went on to say that these moms oppose the higher standards because “all of a sudden their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

However politically incorrect Secretary Duncan’s comments were, he’s probably absolutely right that many white suburban moms (or “soccer moms” – call them what you will) hate the new standards because the tests are tough, really tough. Wait a second, you’re telling me that soccer moms hate the Common Core, how is everyone else going to cope? There’s a lot we can learn from the changes New York State is making to accommodate struggling learners in the months since their dismal scores were announced.

No need to worry about soccer moms. They generally have the resources to lawyer-up and tutor-up and the political power to demand more from their schools. As a former special education teacher and an attorney representing parents of struggling learners, I’m in schools nearly every day of the week in one of the largest school districts in the country, Miami. Here, the Common Core is being piloted in grades K through 2 and it’s crystal clear that many kids – not just disadvantaged students (English Language Learners, low-income kids, students with disabilities), but also just kids with low average abilities, will not meet these standards anytime soon.

You see, to pass these new tests kids will have to excel at language skills – even on the mathematics portion of the tests – and those intense demands come faster and stronger earlier in their school career. For instance, it’s not good enough to come to the right answer in a math problem, the kid has to explain in writing how he or she came to that answer! And kids as young as first grade must write reports on non-fiction topics using full sentences with proper grammar and punctuation and an introduction and conclusion.

You might think that as an advocate for struggling learners, I would oppose these new tough standards, but I am a supporter. Why? We’ve all heard how behind on the world stage the U.S. is in academic achievement – that’s certainly one reason. But when it comes to struggling learners and students with disabilities, there’s nothing more effective than high expectations and accountability. The Common Core is tough love.

On the other hand, if over time struggling learners don’t pass these tests, there’s a good chance they won’t graduate from high school with a college-ready diploma. And many more kids may drop out of high school in frustration.

In the past several months, New York has been forced to put some thought and action into this dilemma, and my guess is that other states may follow suit – if they don’t drop out of the Common Core altogether. For non-disabled kids, New York State is considering the recent recommendations of the statewide Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma which has recommended alternative routes to a standard diploma for kids who for whatever reason don’t do well on the new tests. Ostensibly, these alternatives would require that the student meets the same Common Core graduation standards, but just by means other than just passing the Common Core tests.

For students with mild to moderate disabilities, the State has taken two actions – the former is very controversial and the later has much more promise. First, earlier this month as part of a “waiver” application to the federal government, New York proposed an additional way to assess some students with disabilities, known as “out-of-level” testing. So, a fourth grader with severe dyslexia, for instance, who was reading at a second grade level could take the second grade Common Core test and if they passed it, could be considered “proficient” and make the district and State look better. These kids by definition would be less likely to earn a college-ready diploma in the long run. As I said, this proposal is very controversial because it could result in schools automatically settling on lower expectations for kids with disabilities. There’s a reason why out-of-level testing, which was once the norm, has been outlawed by the feds for years – it becomes an easy way to get around the hard work of helping these kids to become career and college-ready.

Second, in June the State announced a new high school “certificate” (not a diploma) that is intended to indicate to employers a student’s readiness for entry-level jobs. This certificate requires that students attend 12 years of school and meet specific career-ready standards, but cannot be used in and of itself to apply to college or the military. It could be used to obtain a specialized vocational certificate in anything from interior design to computer services. In an economy that increasingly rewards specialization, more and more institutions are offering these programs that are typically taken over three to 18 months. According to Georgetown University, on average certificate holders earn 20 percent more than high-school educated workers – about $240,000 over a lifetime.

The advocacy community may skewer me for saying this, but college is not for everyone. I don’t say this lightly because in elementary school my parents were told I would never go to college due to my own learning disabilities. Well, a masters and law degree later, let’s just say I was scarred for life by the public school system’s failure to recognize my potential. As a former teacher and advocate who has worked with hundreds of students, I see that college provides little added benefit for many, and often saddles them with debt. All struggling students should have the opportunity to rise to the challenge of the Common Core. But if they don’t or can’t, New York’s proposed alternative pathways to a diploma for non-disabled kids, and their new certificate option for disabled kids look like very promising harbingers of the future.

-Allison Hertog

Allison Hertog, founder of Making School Work, is one of a handful of attorneys in the country with a masters degree in special education. This first appeared on the Huffington Post.

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