The myth of a high school education
Recently the State Department of Education released results of the 2010 California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) with a complementary announcement of the narrowing of the achievement gap. Hispanic and African American students have apparently made some progress decreasing the gap in passing rate with White and Asian American students. Any data point that results in narrowing of an achievement gap that has become a persistent outcome of the education system is cause for some celebration.
Except in this instance it means very little.
The CAHSEE is not the data point we should be focusing on as the key metric to measure student performance. At best, the CAHSEE establishes a “floor,” a minimum of what students should achieve by the time they exit high school. But at worst, the CAHSEE creates a false expectation that graduating from high school having passed the exit exam has somehow prepared students for college-level work.
If we really want to measure how successful students are upon exiting high school, the focus ought to be on the successful completion of the University of California/California State University high school course requirements called “A-G.” The A-G requirements are a specific number and sequence of courses that students must complete to simply be eligible to apply to one of the UC or CSU campuses (see the summary of A-G elsewhere in TOP-ED). But not all students complete the A-G requirements, as it is not a requirement of all high schools that students complete the A-G courses. Some districts, like San José Unified, require students to complete the A-G coursework in order to graduate from high school.
Yes, there are challenges in making A-G the required course curriculum. For starters, safety-net programs such as summer school and after-school programs, which would provide students additional help in meeting a more challenging curriculum, are needed. The California education funding system is broken, and districts are struggling to provide just basic programs.
However, there is no reason why the A-G curriculum should not be the “default” coursework in California schools, with students having an “opt out” option. When the A-G coursework is the default curriculum, students must be placed in A-G courses starting at grade 9. Having A-G as the default curriculum ensures that students are placed in A-G classes and are not inadvertently placed in a non-A-G class. If the course proves too difficult, the student and parents can request a schedule change. But the burden would not be on the student and family to figure out the sometimes confusing A-G coursework. Many families do not understand the system well enough to navigate through the various course requirements that serve as the “ticket” to a four-year college. Even if a student is planning to attend community college, completing the A-G coursework provides a sense of assurance of college readiness far beyond what the California High School Exit Exam or a high school diploma provides.
It is not that state officials are deliberately promulgating the false expectation that graduating from high school implies college readiness. Far from it. But I suspect that many, if not most, parents and the larger community have a sense that a high school diploma does indeed certify that students are ready for college.
But the state of California makes no such promise. According to the Closing the Expectations Gap report by the American Diploma Project, California’s minimum high school requirements were lower or projected to be lower than that of 33 other states by 2009. The 2009 McKinsey report on the achievement gap points out that students in the United States score worse in international comparisons the longer they are in school, with high school students demonstrating the widest gap.
It is time to raise the high school standards and expect all high schools to insert the A-G coursework as the default high school curriculum. We ought not to allow one single student to miss out on a college opportunity because of the randomness of course requirements across districts.
Manny Barbara, former Superintendent of the Oak Grove School District, is VP of Advocacy and Thought Leadership for SVEF. He has been selected four times as Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators, and as Educator of the Year in 2008 by 100 Black Men of Santa Clara County. During his 10 years as superintendent, performance increased for all district student subgroups, including the number of students successfully completing algebra and geometry by the end of 8th grade.