Hold Students Accountable and Support Them

When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, the then-distant date of 2014 was the point at which we would reach educational nirvana and 100 percent of American students would be proficient in math and reading. The goal was never met because, as a fundamental matter, individual human variability makes 100 percent proficiency to a meaningful standard an impossibility. But there were other problems as well: NCLB did not itself provide sufficient incentives for students to work hard, as only teachers were held accountable for failure, and the legislation did not end the enduring inequalities of educational opportunity for low-income and minority students that underlie the achievement gap.

As American education reformers try again, under the Common Core State Standards, to create a sensible system of standards, assessments, and accountability, what can we learn from our earlier mistakes? Three ideas stand out: Assessments aligned with CCSS must give students greater skin in the game by requiring them to pass assessments in order to graduate; tests should be linked to two or more different types of diplomas rather than imposing a rigid single standard for all; and low-income and minority students should receive far greater support than they currently do.

1. Hold students as well as teachers accountable. The threshold question is whether states should require any level of minimum competency on meeting Common Core standards in order to graduate. NCLB did not include such a requirement, and according to a September 2012 study of the Center on Education Policy, only about half of states (26) on their own require that students pass state high-school exit exams to earn a diploma.

Holding teachers accountable for success, but not students, produces a very odd set of incentives. As Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, noted, it makes little sense to tell students that if they fail an exam, they won’t be punished, but their teachers will be. As Shanker often noted, when he was a teacher and gave a quiz, all the students’ hands would go up: “Does it count?” the kids wanted to know.

Countries that lead the world in education expect more of students. According to a 2011 report of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), 9 of 10 countries that score highest on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) use high-stakes “gateway” exams to mark transitions, including the one from high school to college or career. In these countries, the NCEE report notes, “Every student has a very strong incentive to take tough courses and work hard in school. Students who do not do that will not earn the credentials they need to achieve their dream,” and “because the exams are scored externally, the student knows that the only way to move on is to meet the standard.” In other countries, as Shanker noted, students know in advance what is expected of them, and teachers are allies rather than adversaries. “It’s like the Olympics,” Shanker said. “There’s an external standard that students need to meet, and the teacher is there to help the student make it.”

2. Multiple diplomas. Holding all students to a single performance standard, whether that is proficiency under NCLB or a single cut score for graduation under assessments linked to CCSS, will never meet the needs of all students. As the University of Pittsburgh’s Lauren Resnick notes, a single standard may be at once impossibly high for some special education students and fail to sufficiently challenge many other students.

On the one hand, if content and performance standards are set at a very rigorous level for all students, many will inevitably fail. The mantra that “all children can learn to the same high levels,” said Shanker, “is news to parents, teachers, and the public; it defies everything we know and appreciate about human differences.” While group differences between races and classes can be addressed with proper supports, there will always be differences between individual students. A high performance standard, yielding high rates of public school failure, will only confirm left wing fears that the Common Core is a Trojan horse for privatization.

This concern is particularly acute because assessments associated with CCSS are generally more rigorous than state tests administered under NCLB, requiring high-level critical thinking. In Kentucky and New York, the first two states to adopt Common Core exams, student passage rates have declined. The drops were particularly pronounced in New York schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students, a New York Times analysis found. Requiring all students to meet a very high single standard for a diploma could significantly diminish the economic prospects of large numbers of society’s most vulnerable students.

On the other hand, a single standard, like the goal of 100 percent student proficiency under NCLB, could lead over time to a watering down of CCSS performance standards for all students. Studies by the Fordham Institute and by researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan both found that states with high performance standards tended to weaken them in response to NCLB’s goal of moving all children to a single standard. As a political matter, it will be difficult for supporters of CCSS, already under attack from various corners, to sustain a system in which large numbers of students are denied diplomas.

To avoid these two extremes, it makes far more sense to adopt multiple performance standards tied to CCSS. Just as colleges award diplomas with different levels of distinction (summa cum laude, magna cum laude, cum laude), different types of high school diplomas could be offered depending on a student’s performance on the CCSS assessment. In this way, students from all elements of the academic distribution would have an incentive to work harder and learn more.

3. Support low-income and minority students to earn stronger diplomas. Any system involving multiple diplomas raises a very legitimate concern: will low-income and minority students disproportionately receive a less-well-regarded degree? In New York State, for example, high school graduates can receive a Regents Diploma or a Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation. In 2013, 43 percent of white students received the Advanced Designation diploma, compared with only 9 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students.

But civil-rights advocates have recognized that shining light on disparities of result, such as the requirement that test data be disaggregated by racial and income groups under NCLB, is an important first step to reform. Stark differences in the awarding of different types of diplomas under CCSS should be a spur to action, in both the political and legal arenas, to close the opportunity gap from which the achievement gap springs. If courts can strike down teacher tenure laws as a violation of the rights of poor and minority children (see “Script Doctors,” legal beat, Fall 2014), why not use the results from CCSS assessments to go after the drawing of school boundaries in a way that perpetuates economic school segregation and denies children equal opportunity? In that way, the Common Core can fully serve its twin purposes of promoting both excellence and equity.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Union, Race and Democracy.

This is part of a forum on rethinking the high school diploma. For alternate takes, please see “Different Kids Need Different Credentials” by Chester E. Finn, Jr., or “Diplomas Must Recognize College and Career Readiness” by Sandy Kress.

This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Finn, C.E., Kahlenberg, R.D., and Kress, S. (2015). Rethinking the High School Diploma. Education Next, 15(1), 48-53.

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