You are here


Subject to Change

Small schools. Exit exams. College prep. Everyone seems to agree that high schools need to change dr

Like the crest of a wave that's been building slowly as it rolls toward shore, the high school reform movement broke in 2005. For years, elementary school education has been front and center for policymakers and advocates. But with a high-profile governors summit on high school reform last February, a mention in President Bush's State of the Union Address and new initiatives popping up from the federal level to school districts, high schools' time in the spotlight has arrived.

Not a moment too soon, say reformers, who look at the nation's stock of high schools and see outdated institutions that allow far too many students to drop out and underserve those who do graduate. The public agrees. In a poll released last fall by the Alliance for Excellent Education, 83 percent of respondents indicated high schools should be the highest priority for educational improvement and 71 percent said high school education has remained at the same level or declined over the past five years.

"The problems aren't just in urban districts. Significant numbers of kids all over aren't passing tests and aren't graduating with the skills they need," says Jim Shelton, program director for education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

" The attention high schools are getting now, compared to four or five years ago, is totally different. People are pushing the envelope on how to create solutions for all kids." -Jim Shelton, program director for education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Since 2001, the Gates Foundation has been one of the leading proponents of recasting the nation's high schools, pouring a billion dollars into the cause, primarily to create new small schools. Gates' officials are the first to tell you, however, that high school reform is far from easy. From exit exams to small schools, policymakers are finding that no one approach can do it all, that buy-in at the school level is crucial and that teachers and (especially) students need additional support to make any reform successful. The good news: A lot of new ideas are being tried, and the political will to keep on searching for answers seems to be on the rise.

Testing Assumptions

High school reform's last big day in the spotlight was in the late 1990s, when a mini fad of instituting exit exams swept through many states around the country. Requiring students to pass one or more state-administered tests before being awarded a high school diploma, exit exams were one of the first widespread indications of the appeal of the standards movement and predated No Child Left Behind's sometimes contentious debates over fairness and consequences. Most states gradually rolled out the requirements over several years or more to give districts time to prepare. Now, results are beginning to come in, and the answers are far from clear.

"The bottom line is, neither the hopes nor the fears about these exams have proven to be true yet. It's too early to say, for example, that large numbers of kids are not getting their high school diploma because of exit exams," says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, which has published an exhaustive annual study of the tests for the last four years. On the other hand, most of these tests are geared to an 9th or 10th grade competency, and there is scant evidence that they help ensure graduates are better prepared.

Exit exams, however, are here to stay. While Oklahoma is the only state this year to be added to the ranks of states with exams on the books--bringing to the total number to 26 either already in place or scheduled to begin in the next seven years--Michigan's state board of education is now proposing all students must take the Michigan Merit Exam or an alternative assessment for students with severe disabilities. In Maine, all graduating students must take the SAT, although policymakers are debating whether a minimum score would be required to graduate. Even without these additions, by 2012, about 72 percent of all American public school students will have to pass required exit exams, including an estimated 82 percent of minority students and 87 percent of English-language learners.

Meanwhile, the tests are getting harder: Many states ratchet up the level of rigor in the exams year by year, and fewer states are using reputedly easier minimum competency tests (10 in 2002 and 2 in 2005), moving instead to more challenging standards-based and end-of-course exams.

Critics contend that despite the lack of evidence of systemic harm, the exit exam movement is hurting high school education. "These tests turn schools into test prep programs. The future is no electives and multiple periods of math, making school inhospitable for many children," says Monty Neill, co-executive director of the advocacy group Fair Test. "The burden of these tests falls overwhelmingly on kids of color, those with disabilities, low-income students and students who don't speak English, because there isn't enough money to improve their schools adequately to prepare them for the tests."

The mitigating factor may be that state policymakers see the political liability of allowing tests to become an impassible hurdle for thousands of students. Starting last year in Texas, students who didn't pass the exit-level Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills are issued a customized study guide tailored to each student's academic weaknesses. California and Arizona have both backed off their initial timeline for when the tests would go into effect, and states like Indiana and Massachusetts have created procedures that allow students who've failed the test but passed their coursework to appeal for a diploma.

"The pattern seems to be that states put into place high school exit exams, then, when they face the prospect of many kids not passing, they provide help, gradually turning toward how to align the curriculum and look further down into the earlier grades to ensure students are prepared for that level of learning when they reach high school," Jennings says. A report in California, for example, showed districts gradually aligning their coursework with the exam's standards. The race, it seems, is whether increasing standards will overwhelm increasing resources to meet them.

Graduation Rate Debate

Although there is no direct evidence that exit exams are dragging graduation rates down, there is evidence that rates are falling. According to a 2003 report from the Center for the Study of Testing at Boston College, graduation rates fell by more than 5 percent in 15 states between 1988-89 and 2000-01, including from 90 percent to 73 percent in Hawaii and from 68 percent to 63 percent in Florida. That's big news compared to even a few years ago, when conventional wisdom held that graduation rates were relatively high and stable.

The disparity comes from the tricky nature of measuring who graduates. By and large, systems don't have longitudinal data that tracks individual students through the system, so rates must be calculated in the abstract, measuring a class cohort over time. But students move from one school, district or state to another; some are left back a year and leave their cohort but still graduate; others drop out but do earn a GED.

States and districts, understandably reluctant to underestimate their grad rates and with no universally accepted standard, have generally chosen the most lenient measuring stick. Usually states calculate the ratio of students who enter and then graduate from 12th grade. Unfortunately, this has severely distorted the true picture of the dropout problem. Only in the last year or two has the true depth of the issue really become apparent.

A federal report released last August, the first comprehensive gathering of data from the federal government in more than 25 years, outlines graduation rates state by state (see chart above). The study uses a formula most would probably agree matches their concept of high school graduation: a ratio of students who enter 9th grade with the number who graduate four years later. By this measure--weighted slightly to take into account factors like students who are held back in 9th grade--only 74 percent of high school students across the country graduate, with rates as low as 59.7 percent in Georgia and 60.9 percent in New York.

The numbers are much worse for minorities. While 75 percent of white students graduated from high school nationwide in 2001, according to a slightly different methodology used by a 2004 study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute, only 50 percent of African-American students, 51 percent of Native Americans and 53 percent of Hispanic students received a high school diploma.

Walter Haney, a professor at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and co-author of the 2003 Center for the Study of Testing paper, argues that the debate over how to measure graduation rates is essentially immaterial: A 2004 study he conducted shows that results from six different measuring methodologies correlate quite closely. "The debate over graduation rate measurement is a real red herring, in my opinion. Some districts are saying they need longitudinal systems to collect statistics for high schools, but we can't wait six to eight years to put those systems in place," he says.

Increasingly, policymakers are agreeing with Haney. This year, 47 states have agreed to find a standard measuring methodology. Which leaves the more important question, how can school systems lower the dropout rate? "We're learning more and more about the early warning indicators that will alert us when students are about to drop out, things like if students failed two courses in middle school, or if they are absent more than 25 days in high school. We can identify students early and connect them with someone in school, give them more support. We need a variety of strategies like that," says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

What Does a Diploma Mean?

As attention to keeping kids in school is on the rise, a countervailing, almost counterintuitive, movement is also growing: a push to make coursework more challenging. "In our initial research project in 2001, we tried to identify the knowledge and skills in math and English needed to do real college-ready work or to be prepared for a decent job that pays well with growth potential. We learned that there is a substantial gap between that skill set and what is required by a high school diploma. Lots of kids are leaving high school ill-prepared," Cohen says.

Cohen's group, Achieve, worked with the National Governors Alliance to convene the National Education Summit on High Schools last February. From that meeting, Achieve has created the American Diploma Project Network, a coalition that has grown to 22 states with a commitment to work with business executives and university leaders to raise the rigor of high school standards. Cohen says all states have created taskforces to begin the dialogue.

Some states and districts are already moving forward. In December, Michigan's Board of Eduction passed a new set of graduation requirements, including four years of math and English language arts, three years of science and at least one online course. In Portland, Ore., the Class of 2009, this year's freshmen, will have to earn an additional credit in both math and science, and three of a student's eight electives must be in one career pathway subject area. More than just adding requirements, the system is providing much more stringent parameters on which courses are available and what they teach. "We found, for example, that only 51 percent of our graduates had met the university admissions requirements in the Oregon system in math," says Steve Olczak, Portland Public Schools' director of secondary education. "So now, each of the three credits must include application of algebra or geometry."

In addition, last year Portland required every freshman to take Algebra I, a "gatekeeper course" that Olczak says sets the tone for what high school will require and ensures that every student is on the right path. States like Oklahoma, Arkansas and Indiana are trying a similar tactic, removing a two-tier diploma system that tracked some students into lower-level classes.

Portland Public Schools is also investigating how to get more students to take some college-level courses while in high school. It's part of the P-16 movement, which aims to move students seamlessly from Pre-K to college graduation ("16th grade") by aligning expectations between systems and ensuring students are prepared to move up. "More and more we're looking at education as a total continuum, and if that's the case you have to have coordination. The P-16 approach is vital," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

The early college movement has taken root around the country, with more than 170 such high schools opening in 25 states since 2001. By 2008, more than 65,000 students are expected to attend early college high schools.

Small Schools, Part Two

To reconstitute how high school works, no strategy has been as widely replicated as small schools, a burgeoning movement for more than a decade. For the last four years, the Gates Foundation has helped districts in every corner of the country launch more than 2,000 new small high schools in 41 states. The foundation cites studies that show students in small high schools score higher on tests, pass more courses and go on to college more frequently, all else being equal, than students at traditional large schools.

Gates has seen small schools as a key way to achieve its three R's to reinvent high schools--rigorous instruction, a relevant curriculum and meaningful, supportive relationships. However, an internal evaluation of the program's effectiveness released in November provided surprisingly mixed results at many schools, with math scores in particular not nearly as impressive as the foundation and its many district partners' had hoped.

"We can use a change in emphasis. Of the three R's, people have paid the most attention to the relationships and so have focused on structure and size. But small schools are a means to an end, and that's gotten lost on some people," Shelton says. In the wake of the report's news, Gates' officials have said they will ask districts to limit the autonomy of small schools that aren't performing well and look to fund portfolios of new schools that include more established models. But even before last fall, the foundation had begun to push districts to consider plans for improvement at all high schools, not just the new small facilities, and to improve curriculum and teacher preparedness at small schools.

"There's a school of thought that the structure comes first and a school of thought that instruction comes first--and there's a real tension with that," says Mary Ellen Steele-Pierce, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at West Clermont School District in Ohio, which transformed its two large high schools into a total of 10 theme-based small schools four years ago. Since the change, average attendance and graduation rates have climbed slightly, and the number of student discipline incidents has fallen by almost 40 percent.

At the start, Steele-Pierce estimates that about three-quarters of the district's attention went to how to make the new structure work, but now West Clermont is giving greater emphasis to how classes are taught, including a core dedication to differentiated instruction. "We want to emphasize how our teachers can help students become creative thinkers and problems solvers and know how to be part of a team," she says.

"If you don't handle the other elements, you do the work to break apart a bad traditional school and just end up with a bad small school," says Wise. "When you go deep into any of these reforms you begin to see common elements about trying to make the high school experience a more personal one, with a direct relationship with an adult. All this that we're seeing is a reflection that the high school model needs changing." On that point, a lot of people can agree.

Carl Vogel is a Chicago-based writer.

Related Information