The Big Picture of High School Graduation Criteria

In American public high schools, students generally need three things to be considered done with a free public education.

1. Passing scores on exit exams
2. Sufficient course credits
3. Be at least 17 years old

Not all states use the same criteria for exit exams, credit hours, and date for aging out of compulsory education. I’m in NY so I use that as a reference point. Your mileage and experiences may vary. What also varies are the slow, small changes some districts and communities have been taking over time to shift away from these particular criteria, which was all the rage when the United States made the decision to educate all of its younger citizens, not just those who could pay tuition.

Exit Exams
For the majority of students in NY, a passing grade on Regents exams is needed in order to demonstrate they’ve learned what’s expected. This idea of “what’s expected” lies at the heart of the standards conversation – which is too big an issue for this particular post. Currently, students need to pass 4 or 5 exams, depending on which pathway they are on. NYSED is in the process of expanding the pathways to include an arts degree and revamping the Global Studies Exam with has kept many a student from graduating on time.

For a minority of students in NY, mastery of the standards is demonstrated via research papers, portfolios, and projects. The criteria for success on their work is determinded through a consortium that operates with the full consent of NYSED and its members are regular ol’ public education schools. Anne Cook, the director, reports they have fewer students drop out than Regents-giving high schools and their students report being better prepared for college. The consortium is not new. It’s been around since the late 90’s and as public interest in alternatives to high stakes exams grows, media outlets are covering more and more schools across the country that are quietly looking to document this criteria in a non-exam based way.

Course Credits
For the majority of students in public education across the country, they have to earn a sufficient number of course credits to graduate. These Carnegie units [Yes, it got its name exactly how you think it got its name] are strictly time-based. A common joke when discussing the issue of course credits is to point out the part of the learner they measure; students get credits based on how long their butt was in the seat, not necessarily how well or much is learned. Typically, students aren’t given credit for having sat in a particular seat unless they get a grade that reflects they did what the teacher expected while sitting in that seat AKA pass the course. The challenge of how we describe “passing” is at the heart of the anti-grade movement and likewise a separate issue from this post.

For a minority of students in public education, measurement shifts from time to mastery. As it is with all things in education, this approach has many names: Competency-based education (CBE), performance-based, mastery-based, etc. [For what it’s worth, I’m fairly confident that it took a while for Carnegie to shake out as the name for time-based education and then it became the only name. So it goes in education nomenclature. This does a good job trying to define mastery-based learning] This approach is not new nor does it look the same everywhere. It was not invented by Gates, Pearson, or Rocketship. It’s based on the basic philosophy held by any adult who has met more than one child: not all children develop in the same way or at the same pace. What is new is the attention it’s getting – especially when a publisher or vendor relies on teaching machines (H/t Audrey Watters) to make learning personal. It’s important to note – and the purpose for this post – this approach is no more representative of CBE than a pit bull is representative of the subspecies canis. 

Aging out of Compulsory Education
For the majority of students in the world, passage through public education is based on how many times they’ve gone around the sun. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson – they’re organized based on their date of manufacturing. Parents debate enrolling a “old 5” or waiting until they’re a “young 6.” To put it more bluntly, the “staircase” many point to as a problem with the Common Core was built long before Common Core came along. It’s merely a runner on those cement steps.

For a minority of students here in the states, some districts are shifting how they think about the concept of time and age. The Adams 50 School District in Colorado is one that moved away from a traditional concept of grades. Ira Socol writes a great deal about his district’s approach to grouping. For others, the shift away from course credits forced a reconsideration of how students are grouped and graduate. New Hampshire has passed policies that allows local districts to determine if demonstrating competencies allows students to graduate “early.”

States, districts, and schools have choices about how they handle the three components of exiting a free public education. To that end, we can make claims about each of them in turn. Some possible ones might include [and note, I’m not married to any of these, just taking my claim writing skills out for a walk]:

  • Claim: Exit exams are the cheapest, most cost-effective way to ensure students have mastered the expected content.
  • Counterclaim: Portfolio-based and performance-based exit tasks, though more costly, are worth it as they allow us to expand what it measured and how students demonstrate their learning.
  • Claim: Traditional course credits are the most effective way of ensuring students get the full developmentally-appropriate liberal arts experience including group work, discussion, and review of previously learned content.
  • Counterclaim: Competency-based learned shifts the focus from time-based measurement to actual student ability and allows for more varied, personalized engagement with the content.
  • Claim: A society needs to keep children in school until the age of 17 or 18 to develop their social and emotional skills, regardless of how much learning they’re experiencing in school. 
  • Counterclaim: By allowing students to exit out of school once they have mastered the outcome expectations for public education, students are free to pursue their own areas of interest.

Looking forward to hearing your claim.


“Thanks for the feedback!” NYSED to NYS Educators

Edited on November 23 to add the NYSAPE Common Core Survey. 

For years, likely since the first day the website went up, there has been a “Teacher Participation Opportunities” link on the New York State Education Department’s Office of State Assessment (OSA) website.

Following the link leads to a series of options available to NY teachers to participate in a variety of test design and assessment writing activities. These activities typically require sub coverage and travel to Albany, a 9-hour round trip and an overnight stay for those in the Southern Tier. Some are “once and done” work in which the teachers go to Albany, engage in a particular task, get a nice thank you letter, and not know what will become of their work until the test is published or the scores released. Some are extended projects in which teachers return multiple times to Albany or continue the work back at home. The biggest challenges of this approach to getting teacher feedback:
  •  teachers have to volunteer or be nominated,
  • SED can filter who they bring to do the work, and
  • the proceedings aren’t public.

This novel idea of involving NYS teachers in the design of the NYS tests and exams isn’t new. Teachers in 1891 were asked their opinion on the exams.

At least as early as 1891, blanks for suggestions and criticisms “relative to the character and scope of the examinations” were shipped with each set of examination papers. These comments are tabulated and studied carefully.

So basically, teachers have been involved in the writing of the NYS tests and exams since pretty much the beginning. Opinions about if it’s the *right* kind of feedback, if the *right* teachers are giving feedback, and what that feedback looks like in the modern era vary.
The feedback process around standards isn’t nearly as long. The formal presence of standards didn’t start until the 90’s. Any NYS teacher of a certain age remembers the booklets with the 1996 standards, printed on really thin paper with different colored covers. Inside the front cover of each book was a list of the teachers who participated in their construction and anchoring. This is from the LOTE standards, the only ones that haven’t been updated since 1996.
When the time came to update the standards following the change in NYS law in 2007, Albany came to the field. In April 2008, I was at the Western NY forum and used this new thing called Twitter to share out what was happening. It’s interesting to note that many of the things I tweeted, the things the teachers in the room were asking for, are a part of the Common Core design. But I digress.
Shortly after the forums concluded, the committee wrote up their findings and began working on what are now called the “lost” standards by some advocates. I prefer the moniker the “paused” standards as NY stopped that work in order to be a part of a new initiative to create multi-state standards. “Common” standards, as it were. NYSED provides a timeline of those decisions here. Opinions about why New York made that decision, if the “paused” standards are better or worse than the CCSS, and what it means to have 50 states with 50 sets of standards area vary.
Which brings us to 2015 and NYS is again seeking out teacher feedback.
  1. Want to comment on each specific Common Core Learning Standard? Commissioner Elia wants to know if the standard is acceptable, if it should be moved, changed, or re-worded.
  2. Want to comment on the CCLS, tests, or APPR in general? Governor Cuomo and his task force are all ears. (It remains to be seen, though, how discrepancies between Elia’s survey and Cuomo’s task force will be resolved.)
  3. Want to comment on the latest draft of the Science standards? The Science department at NYSED will open a survey on December 2. Draft standards are available now.
  4. Want to comment on the proposed changes to the NYS Social Studies Regents? The look, design, and structure of the exams are open for feedback.
  5. Want to be a part of writing NYS tests, assessments, and exams? The offer from them still stands. (Be sure to check dates though, some have closed for now.)
  6. NYS Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) created their own survey which touches upon testing, APPR, and the CCLS standards. It’s unclear how these data will be used.
In addition, updates from SED frequently appear on the agenda for events like Middle-Level Liaisons, DATAG,  Social Studies conferences, etc. It’s a safe assumption that those SED personnel are talking to the teacher- and administrator-leaders of those organizations. So let it not be said NYSED in 2015 doesn’t want your opinion.
But as we know, that’s only step 1.

Lie back and think of England

There is a certain cognitive twitch that occurs only when one is writing a multiple choice question for poetry. It’s a brain hiccup caused by the tension of doing something that shouldn’t be done but has to be done.

Everyone in the room, myself included, knew the non-negotiables:
  • goal was to write a common assessment
  • it needed to include poetry
  • it had to generate quantitative data (ergo, scanning MC questions versus hand scoring written responses)

It simply wasn’t a viable option at that moment to switch gears completely to curriculum-embedded, performance tasks like some districts had done. Things had been negotiated. Compromises had been reached. So, there we were. Trying to find a poem that was equal parts complexity and simplicity.

As most teachers do, this group found a way through and used student choice, several different poems, and a focus on the CCSS Language standards to make it an assessment that would generate useful information without causing too many brain cramps. 
On my travels to my next adventure, I kept re-living the day. Why didn’t we push back harder? Why didn’t I advocate more vocally for a better assessment when asked to support this group of teachers? Did we capitulate because as a room full of white women, we were socialized to follow the rules? We did what was asked. We met the mandate while doing our very best to ensure quality assessment. No one left feeling like we would be imposing something unethical or unfair on the students but at the same time… a multiple choice question about poetry. Did we do the right thing?

In a twitter exchange on the theme of the thinking behind certain mandates, Peter Greene tweeted to me, “So just lie back and think of England?” Which, first, no. And second… no. (No time to click the link? The phrase is wrongly attributed as advice from Queen Victoria to her daughter-in-law about producing an heir but has come to represent a trope that women need to suffer through sex for the greater good. Here is where every real nerd will repeat, “The Greater Good.”)

It would seem there are three ways to deal with policy mandates with which we disagree.

  1. Refuse it. The Opt Out approach appears to be about changing policy by refusing to participate. It’s not necessarily about finding a way through, it’s about finding a way around. 
  2. Be excused from it. New Hampshire’s approach to annual testing is asking permission to come at it from a totally different direction
  3. Find a way through it. Leveraging mandates to make the best of what’s been asked.
I compulsively read everything I can on cognitive biases and how our brains are lazy by design. So I spend a lot of time while traveling trying to figure out the holes in my logic model. See – I’m okay with #3. I’m okay with schools looking at policy and saying, “Welp. This is silly. But, it’s policy. How can we attend to this in a way that honors what we value and protects our students?” And then moving on. I don’t see it as capitulation, but I suspect that’s because I’m treating it as a narrow issue of assessment/curriculum design. 
Some authors like to compare the Opt Out movement to activities through history, especially during the Civil Rights era and each time I read one of those blog posts, I struggle against my instinct to reject them as hyperbole. In some cases, I’ve no problems connecting parts of a system (impact of cultural appropriation on the well-being of Native Americans) but here… (Opting Out of a state test as a gesture towards more equitable schools), I struggle. 
There is, I suspect, a great deal to be said about what it means to leverage mandates. It’s a close cousin to “asking for forgiveness instead of permission” and lives in the narrow space between doing what is required and what is right. Is it a matter of changing of what we can? Or do I have a giant blind spot around the Opt Out movement?