Ensuring the quality and consistency of courses is fundamental to fixing high school

Laura Slover

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

A decade ago, the nation came to a consensus that all students should graduate from high school ready for college, career, and citizenship. Every state adopted standards that spelled out what “readiness” means and new assessments to measure students’ progress toward that goal. Unfortunately, graduation requirements were weakened, and many students are attaining diplomas without being of college-, career-, or civically-ready.

What can we do to ensure graduation means something? The debate and ideas generated by this 2018 Wonathhon brought out my personal wonkiness earned though experience as an educator, a school board member, a policymaker, and finally, a leader of an organization focused on the greater goal—success for all students. Lots of smart people have worthy ideas about how to make the shift. Some argue we need to advance a competency-based system that places value on what a student has learned—not whether they have sat in a school building for four years. I agree. Others have argued that attendance should count towards certifying graduation. Well, I also agree with that. The question is: Attendance in what? And still others have argued that what we really need is to shift away from our current system altogether in favor of personalized pathways and individualized education that puts the learner—not the school—in the center. All of these are important and promising recommendations, and we should explore them.

But even as we look towards innovative ideas, we should not forget the basics: high standards that communicate what kids need to know and be able to do, rich curricula, aligned high quality assessments, and great teachers. Yes, we can and should redesign the high school delivery model. And yes, we can and should create pathways that engage students. But we can’t backtrack on these fundamentals.

For a high school diploma to matter, we must recommit to giving all students the academic foundation necessary to complete advanced certifications or enroll in a postsecondary institution. This means we need to hold firm to high standards, whether they are the Common Core or others that are comparable in rigor. What they are called matters less than what they include: reading complex texts, writing using evidence, and doing meaningful mathematics to prepare one for college-credit-bearing courses.

But standards that sit on a shelf aren’t the end game. The next critical step is to ensure that curricula and coursework match the standards. In many states, coursework matching the rigor of the standards is not required for graduation. For example, most state standards include mathematics through algebra II, as well as some statistics. And yet in thirty-one states, students are not actually required to take those courses. And even when they are, too often the rigor of required courses doesn’t meet the rigor of the standards.  

Districts have an obligation to ensure that all students take the courses that will set them up for success. But they should also ensure the quality and consistency of courses, which they can accomplish in three critical ways.

First, curriculum matters, and districts must make good choices. This can be hard when every company claims alignment to college and career readiness and school boards have to make decisions based on little evidence. The good news is that, in recent years, organizations like Ed Reports have begun to help make sense of the curriculum landscape by a review process that cultivates quality curriculum. Savvy states like Louisiana are doing the same. Both of these resources can provide policymakers and teachers the tools they need to make informed decisions about quality and aligned curricula.

Second, districts and schools should take an extra step to ensure consistency of rigor; they should use end-of-course and/or other interim assessments as an external check to make sure all students—regardless of where they live—are getting exposed to the same level of rigorous content. Algebra II in D.C. should look like algebra II in New Jersey. And algebra II should look the same from D.C.’s Wilson High School to its Dunbar High School. Collectively, the field has been working towards this end for nearly two decades—and yet vast disparities continue to exist within and across districts. The data-based results of these assessments can help move the needle here because districts can use them to monitor schools’ delivery of content and certify that a student who passed a course actually learned the content and didn’t just accumulate seat time. Attendance matters, as others have pointed out. But if students aren’t attending meaningful courses with strong content, measuring (or counting) attendance is a poor proxy for measuring learning.

Third, beyond test scores, we must think creatively about how high school students demonstrate mastery of the content through performances of mastery before they meet graduation requirements. Graduation portfolios and presentations to community members have been implemented in the past with success. As a high school teacher, I served as a panel member for students as they presented their portfolios. Students had to share and explain their work and respond on their feet to questions from panelists. There was no gaming of this system. Either you were prepared, or you weren’t. And the public presentations provide clear evidence to community members about the quality of student work and the education that prepared them. Sure, this is a time-consuming process, but it can be another source of evidence that students are prepared to graduate. It also creates additional connections between students and adults, sending the clear message to students that they are part of a broader community, which can help motivate them and benefit their social and emotional wellbeing.

All young people deserve to be prepared for the next stage in their lives. The situation at D.C.’s Ballou High School makes clear that we as educators and public officials have fallen short. We owe it to students, their parents, and the public to get it right. Even as we explore differentiated diplomas and differentiated pathways in high school, let’s get back to fundamentals. Let’s focus on what is taught and measuring whether it is learned. That way, when we do redesign high schools, they will be built on a solid foundation—not just a house of cards.

Laura Slover is the CEO of CenterPoint Education Solutions.