Posts Tagged meaningful diplomas

Rhode Island Legislates Low Expectations

Published by — You would think the RI Legislature would be knocking itself out to back workforce development… but no.

Currently, Rhode Island has the highest unemployment in the nation.  As unemployment was falling nationally, RI stayed high even as train-wreck states like Michigan (with the near demise of the auto industry) and Nevada (massive real estate bust) improved.  Business-climate reports put RI at or near dead last in their rankings, including on the quality of the workforce.

So you would think the Rhode Island Legislature would be knocking itself out to beef up the economy by backing all manner of workforce development, like making high school diplomas more meaningful.

But no, quite the contrary.  They just dismantled years of work designed to make students accountable for learning a bit of math and English.

As of the graduating class of 2014, students were required to “pass” the statewide test, NECAP, in English and math, to earn a diploma.  “Pass” merely meant achieving better than Level 1, or “substantially-below proficient.”  Students who failed had multiple chances to re-take the test, and even then only needed to show improvement.  They could also take other tests.  And districts were allowed to grant waivers and give out diplomas anyway to those who failed all testing efforts.  The bar couldn’t have been lower.

But the Legislature, and those who have the Legislative ear, got a violent attack of enabling and decided to spare the kids this super-minimalist expectation.  So for the next three years, schools are forbidden to hold students accountable for their test performance.  If kids feel like blowing off state exams, no prob.  The Legislature got them off the hook.  Whining to the right people in RI helps you weasel out of a lot. The message to the kids is:  “We hold you to low expectations.  We feel sorry for you.  We’ll protect you from facing this academic challenge.”

Just up the coastline, Massachusetts has been showing the world that high expectations via “high-stakes” tests in high school will inspire the schools and most importantly, the kids to rise to the occasion.  In 2003 when their state test, the MCAS, first counted towards graduation, the number of high school students who passed the test on the first try rose 20 percentage points over the prior year.  Kid didn’t get smarter, they got serious.  They had a dog in the fight.  If MA students want a diploma, they work for it.  As well they should.

Last year, roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 juniors in RI’s graduating class of 2014 failed to get out of Level 1.  The protest against the test requirement was deafening, while the lack of curiosity about those 4,000 seemed mind-boggling.  For example, did they go to school regularly?  I ask because a study that examined the MA students who failed the 2003 tests found that most were chronically absent, defined as missing 10 days of school or more.  Regularly-attending English-language learners and special-needs students passed at far higher rates than their peers who were absent 10 days or more.  No matter what your challenge, going to school improves performance.

If RI’s Level 1 failures didn’t bother going to school regularly, why should they get diplomas?  What does it mean to “earn” such a diploma?  A local research study found that 20 percent of RI’s 2009 graduates were chronically absent during high school.  The same study goes on to show that graduates with horrible attendance enrolled in college at lower rates and washed out at higher rates than those who regularly went to school.

In other words, the Legislature is making it official that RI diplomas can be placebos, nice confections of convenience.  They certify nothing.  RI’s Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has been absolutely right to push schools to give out diplomas that mean something.  Feel-good diplomas don’t feel so marvelous when the kid’s academic skills are so poor she’s taking remedial classes in college, or hasn’t the 9th-grade skills required for job training.  Workforce development, anyone?

Good parents will tell you that if you set an expectation with a consequence, you’d better follow through.  If not, your kids get the idea that boundaries are squishy and that they can dodge obligations and accountability.  That’s how we create brats and under-performers.  RI students have known they could stay another year in high school to earn a real diploma, however unappealing that may be.  Or else pay better attention in the first place.

Protecting kids from hard challenges at which they might fail is the legacy of the self-esteem movement.  It’s no favor to the kids to enable them to feel good and effective when in fact they’re not.  Actually, it’s kinda horrible.  All kids need high expectations and high support.  They need the adults to be there for them, encouraging their efforts and holding them responsible.

Ah Rhode Island.  I do love it.  But it’s like loving an oppositional-defiant, special-needs child.  My heart’s in it, but it’s oh so hard.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Common Core Math Expectations Are Only A Baseline

Published by — There’s surprisingly little controversy over the meaning of “college-ready math.”  Ready for which college?

We’re going to discuss Common Core today, so take a chill pill.  I’m not saying CC presents nothing to be upset about, but getting upset just clouds clear thinking.

CC is by no means perfect, but it’s not Evil incarnate, either.  So let’s get to know it.  Finding the good parts will remind us that we don’t really want to return to zero accountability, or 50 definitions of proficient, such as we got from No Child Left Behind, or continued stagnant progress in the country’s educational achievement.  Most importantly, if not, Common Core, what?

Conveniently, the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wrote two one-pagers that describe “The Shifts” in thinking that are at the standards’ philosophical heart.  If you look at no other CC materials, read these.  Even for educators, digesting the standards themselves is a daunting task.  So before joining one of the inflamed bandwagons out there, get a bit of grounding in original documents.  Many CC controversies are bogus hysteria — such as the standards requiring limits on bathroom time — but some are very real.

Using The Shifts’ math page, let’s examine the frequent accusation that CC “dumbs down” math expectations, in part by notrequiring Algebra I until the 9th grade.  This is a legitimate concern since Algebra II is generally the gatekeeper to all but the least selective colleges.  Historically, schools found that only by pushing Alg I into middle school would it give struggling math students, often low-income minorities, plenty of time to repeat math classes and still reach the “college-ready math” benchmark.  Not an insignificant worry.  Let’s consider it:

The philosophical shifts for math are organized under “Focus,” “Coherence,” and “Rigor.”  The first shift is this:

The Standards call for a greater focus in mathematics.  Rather than racing to cover topics in a mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, the Standards require us to significantly narrow and deepen the way time and energy is spent in the math classroom.  We focus deeply on the major work of each grade so that students can gain strong foundations:  solid conceptual understanding, a high degree of procedural skill and fluency, and the ability to apply the math they know to solve problems inside and outside the classroom.

Admit it:  that’s not so nuts.

So let’s make three points:

1.  CCSS are about the timing of testing skills. 

Despite opponents claiming otherwise, standards are NOT a curriculum.  CC offers “exemplar” curricula suggestions — some truly bad — but by all means, ignore them.  The standards only identify when particular skills will be assessed.  Algebra I concepts won’t be tested until the spring of 9th grade.

But no standard prevents schools from offering advanced math to any and all students, so talented kids absorb the sequence of math skill-building that ends with Calculus as fast as their clever heads let them.  Shame on schools that don’t push all their kids to their highest potential.  Kids on a fast track will ace those Algebra I skills by spring of 9th grade.

2.  The CCSS are only a bottom line, a minimum guarantee.

There’s surprisingly little controversy over the meaning of “college-ready math.”  Ready for which college?  Because they range from community colleges to the Ivies.  A recently published research report, “What does it really mean to be college and work ready?” addresses the issue directly.  The NCEE researchers found that at any given time, 45% of all American college students are attending community colleges.  The great majority of these students bomb basic skills tests, especially in math, and end up paying for remedial classes that do not get them closer to an actual degree or certificate.  The report argues that the math needed for most of the Associate’s degree programs, as well as passing the Accuplacer or other placement tests are solid 8th-grade skills with a smidge of Algebra I and Geometry.

Algebra II is usually the gatekeeper to college, and often a high-school graduation requirement.  So schools race through a bazillion topics without ensuring that all kids acquire at least a solid set of practical skills.  The lack of those skills is wrecking the academic careers of largely low-income students attending community colleges.

3.  Redefine “college-ready” math to ensure all kids get the basics. 

I am totally gung-ho for the training that Algebra II offers the mind, but not at the expense of setting up those community college kids for success — never mind winning back the hearts of students who give up high school altogether or any dreams of post-secondary training.  After all, the NCEE report found that only about 5% of jobs require the skills in Algebra II and above.  We might have to be more specific about which-college ready we mean.

Yes, the lack of Algebra II would likely keep students out of highly-selective Ivies, but frankly, the kids I’m concerned about weren’t going to Dartmouth, Vassar, or Reed anyway.  By all means intrigue, cajole and push the low-income, statistically-least-likely-to-succeed kids so some of them get over the hump and into selective colleges.

But are we “dumbing down” or recalibrating “college ready” so tons more students could be prepared for an accessible success?  Again, nothing is stopping schools from challenging the daylights out of the students who can handle it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Students Can Take More Responsibility for Success on State Tests

Published by — Test scores go up when the results make a difference to the kids.  Otherwise many won’t takes tests seriously.

Until the year 2000 I adamantly opposed “high-stakes” state testing, where failure would cost a kid a diploma.  Why penalize kids for what the schools failed to do?

But that year, in a stunning upset of my assumptions, Massachusetts’ 10th-graders improved an enormous 20 percentage points on the statewide MCAS.  From 48 percent proficient to 68 in a single year.  Educators do happy dances when they gain 4 or 5 points on large-scale assessments.  But 20?  Truly miraculous.

What happened was that the kids suddenly had skin in the game.  For the first time the tests counted towards their diplomas.  Starting with the graduating class of 2003, MA required students to “pass” the MCAS — albeit at a very low bar — to be eligible for graduation.  That lit a fire under a lot of adolescent butts.  My overly-trusting heart assumed the kids had been doing their best.  Well, not so much.

For three years, the kids and schools had been told this requirement would kick in.  They heard it.  Many of the 32 percent who didn’t pass the first round were only just shy of the goal.  At each of the five opportunities to retake the test, the passing percentages increased until 95 percent had met the requirement in time for their graduation.  The remainder were welcome to stay in school until they too were successful.

Rhode Island is now going through the same crisis.  Shortly after she arrived, Commissioner Deborah Gist mandated a similar requirement for RI’s class of 2014.  So the juniors who took the NECAP test last fall are the first class whose diplomas depend on “passing” the test — again, at a low level.  They too will have multiple chances to re-take.

They can also apply for waivers for extenuating circumstances, or submit other tests, such as the PSAT or ACCESS, designed for English-language learners.  And to make it totally possible to succeed, they don’t have to make it all the way out of “substantially below proficient,” but just show improvement in small, specified degrees.

Honestly, to meet such a nominal standard, kids really only have to pay serious attention in class and cooperate with whatever support the school provides.  Schools do NOT want to withhold diplomas.

I don’t meant to minimize the concerns of those protesting against this policy.  The students most affected are specifically those whose life prospects already look dim.  The numbers of students now at risk of not graduating is scary.

Currently 4113 students, or 38 percent of the class of 2014 has not yet passed one or both of the tests.  Math is a nightmare, with 4,075 non-passers.  Failing both math and English were 745 students.  Only 19 failed the English test, but passed math.

But Massachusetts was in exactly the same pickle, at the same juncture, with 32 percent who’d failed the first round.  So have faith.  If the RI re-take experience is anything like the Bay State’s, most students will get their fannies in gear and pass.

Or drop out.  Which remains a danger of high-stakes testing, to be fair.  But kids drop out for a million reasons.  The NECAP is not the only diploma requirement.  They could fail their courses or blow off their senior project.  In any case, if students are at all connected to school or motivated by the value of a degree in their future, they’ll get themselves over the hump.

The point is that the days of the utterly meaningless diploma need to be over.  Business and higher education have been screaming for years about incompetent young people coming to them entitled to a paycheck or a college “A” for whatever they produce.

Massachusetts’ diplomas are starting to have credible value.  Since the state passed its famed 1993 education-reform legislation, their schools have clawed their way from middling to the tippy top of the national achievement benchmarks (NAEP) in all subjects.  And it has stayed there over time.  The many facets of their reform efforts are too numerous to mention here.

But among them was the dynamo of handing some responsibility for success to the kids themselves.

Mind you, I still think Americans are just weird about their faith in tests and testing.  I keep hearing about “multiple measures,” but see the same old test scores sliced and diced only to be over-emphasized in all sorts of evaluations.  “Multiple” means tests along with a bunch of other, different indicators.

Still, while not golden, test data are valuable.  The public, businesses and taxpayers deserve to know that the diploma certifies something.

And protecting kids from a minimal standard of performance is just a form of enabling them — as the Massachusetts’ story demonstrates.

Maybe if the RI kids have to share the responsibility for their results, they’ll turn on us, the adults, demanding we take better care of the institutions that should be serving them better.  We deserve it.

Because at the end of the day, the educational results belong to them.

Meaningful diplomas are an excellent goal.  All parties — including parents and the public — should be doing their bit to improve education.  It’s not nuts to hand some of that responsibility over to the kids as well.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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