What Does A High School Diploma Mean?

Melissa Bailey File PhotoThe school board has begun to tighten graduation requirements in effort to keep kids from arriving to college unprepared. Meanwhile, New Haven’s experimental high school is going straight to the Capitol for a fundamental fix to the same problem.

In two separate moves that took place this month, the New Haven Public Schools and its union-run “turnaround” experiment, High School in the Community, took steps to tackle the same problem: Too many kids are passing through city schools without acquiring the skills they need to take basic college courses.

One startling study found that 89 percent of New Haven Public School graduates who enroll in Connecticut public colleges and universities needed to catch up in English and math before they can start earning credits.

That’s partially a reflection of the state’s rules for who needs to take remedial courses—rules that are being dramatically overhauled.

But it’s also a reflection of a challenge for which school officials are taking more responsibility as the city’s school reform drive moves to hold high schools accountable for how their kids fare in college.

Melissa Bailey File PhotoSchool officials on Monday unveiled a few changes to its graduation requirements, including adding one year of technology and of world history; two years of study in the same foreign language; and four years of math instead of just three. The technology class will be required beginning with the Class of 2016.

Overall, the district bumped up the total credits needed from 22 to 25.5. Individual schools already set their own requirements above the district’s mandated minimum levels. Many magnet schools were already meeting these standards, noted Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli, who presented the changes before the school board.

The changes aim to align the city with new admission rules set to take effect in 2015 at state universities, Canelli said.

“Part of this is to cut down the number of students who have to take remedial education going into college,” explained Superintendent Reggie Mayo.

The announcement prompted a discussion about how kids fare after leaving city high schools, and what their diplomas really mean.

“How do you demonstrate mastery of these courses?” Mayor John DeStefano asked.

Unlike places like New York, Connecticut has no standardized test that kids have to pass to leave high school. Sophomores must take the Connecticut Academic Performance Test; if they fail it they make it up by completing a project. The district has its own quarterly assessments, which factor into a kid’s grade in a given course. But ultimately the diploma is based on each teacher’s determination of whether a kid has passed a given class, where passing is anything higher than an F.

DeStefano asked how well New Haven’s high school curriculum prepare kids for success at the colleges it most frequently sends students to—Gateway Community College, Southern Connecticut State University, and the University of Connecticut. Does the school system track kids’ success in college by subject area?

The answer is no—the school system would need to have individual contracts with each university, said Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries. DeStefano urged the city to start examining this data, either through the school board or New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program.

A New Kind Of Diploma?

Meanwhile, High School in the Community (HSC), the city’s union-run turnaround experiment, is taking a more radical approach to the problem—one that will require a change in state legislation.

Following similar efforts elsewhere in New England, HSC is converting to a new way of learning where kids will no longer be able to skate through school with Ds. Starting with this year’s freshmen, students now have to show mastery of set skills, such as factoring polynomials or writing a persuasive essay, before moving up in a given class or grade. The school is getting rid of the usual As and Bs and overhauling report cards to reflect whether kids have mastered these skills.

Melissa Bailey PhotoThe whole experiment aims to result in a diploma that “means something”: In order to graduate, students will have to prove their competence on set skills in every subject, said HSC Building Leader (aka principal) Erik Good (pictured).

HSC is the furthest along of a group of nine schools in Connecticut adopting this model, called “competency-based” or “mastery-based” learning. The school is following a national shift: Schools in Colorado, Oregon and Alaska have already made the switch, as well as the entire states of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

Right now, however, Connecticut law is lagging behind the movement, said Larry Schaefer, a senior staff associate with Connecticut Association Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) who works with an organization that helps schools switch to mastery-based learning. State law defines a high school credit in terms of time: “a 40-minute class period for each school day of a school year.” The law allows two exceptions for credits earned in college or online.

The law reflects what Schaefer calls the old way of doing things. In the traditional model, Schaefer said, time is fixed and learning is variable: each kid sits through each subject and grade level for the same amount of time; some learn a little, and others learn a lot.

In the new model Schaefer supports, learning is fixed but time is variable—students learn at their own pace, which means they may take five or six years to finish high school, or just three if they choose to work hard. At the end, all students will emerge with the same foundation of skills, Schaefer said.

To reflect this change in mentality, HSC aims to revamp its diploma. Doing so will take a change in state law.

So Schaefer and Good hit the state Capitol to make a pitch to lawmakers.

Good testified before the Education Committee on March 15 in favor of House Bill 6624. The bill, entitled “An Act Concerning Minor Revisions To The Education Statutes,” would allow schools to award “credits” not just through seat time, but through “a demonstration of mastery based on competency and performance standards, adopted by the State Board of Education.”

Good said he outlined for lawmakers how the current system has been failing kids. “In our population, our kids come with a variety of impediments” that have gotten in the way of learning, Good said. Students at HSC are majority black or Hispanic; most come from low-income families. Seventeen percent are officially designated as having special needs, the highest of the city’s nine traditional high schools.

“Our kids come unprepared for high school, work hard for four years, but still at the end of four years,” don’t have the skills they need to succeed after high school, Good said in an interview this week at the school. 

He said the mastery-based system is about “not sending kids to college who are not ready for college work.”

Good said by overhauling the graduation requirements at HSC, the school plans to create a diploma that “says to kids—you have completed high school with a course of study. You are ready for college or career.”

HSC has some allies in its quest: the bill Good testified in favor of was authored by, and endorsed by, the co-chairs of the Education Committee.

And the state Department of Education endorsed the idea in an email to the Independent Wednesday. “We are supportive of testing the idea of mastery-based systems,” said spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly. “It’s an exciting concept with great potential. The idea needs to be fleshed out—but to accomplish that we need to let districts experiment and show us the way. It’s important that the State Board of Education be empowered to create a framework in order to guide this process.”

Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:

• She Awoke To A New Life—& A New Mission
High School Of The Future Debuts, Briefly
Gay-Rights Teach-In Goes Off-Script
Nikita Makes It Home
15 Seniors Head To College Early
No More “B And A Smile”
Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
Guv: End Social Promotion
History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”

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posted by: Noteworthy on March 28, 2013  9:33am

Setting aside my continuing disgust with the idea of educational reform in general - the basis of which is at least a generation of complete failure to educate and refusal to acknowledge doing so, I continue to be underwhelmed by what “reform” means here and across this country on a practical level.

Kids are graduating with an inability to write a paper. The last time grammar is discussed is in the 5th grade. The concept of writing a paper based on research, based ability to construct a sentence, spell correctly and punctuate is lost. Writing a persuasive essay is not good enough. These kids are entering college where writing papers is the norm not something rarely done. This area of a diploma needs a sharp right hand turn and it needs it as much if not more than math.

posted by: Walt on March 28, 2013  9:58am

Aren’t these the same folks who led the local systems for many years, focusing on teacher unionization,  more teacher benefits, graduating each kid as if there were no differences in motivation, commitment or intelligence among them and broadcasting praises for the great educational system we presumably were offering?

It’s good that they finally are going to try to improve, but truly I’m not very optimistic

posted by: swatty on March 28, 2013  12:33pm

when i was a kid if you didn’t have the goods to get to the next level you repeated the grade.

posted by: AMDC on March 28, 2013  5:59pm

First of all, Erik Good is the facilitator, not the AKA PRINCIPAL.  The vestiges of teacher-run are dying but still there at HSC, for now. Second,  let’s cut the crap and see the graduation rates for HSC and their graduates’ success rate in post-secondary education.  Let’s stop touting this school as if the results were already there.  They remain to be seen and a lot of union and teacher prestige is riding on this experiment.  I wish it well but let us see some results rather than the continual hype .  Too much like GROUPTHINK for me

posted by: Tom Burns on March 29, 2013  4:22am

So negative with the comments—you must be old people, like me—this is America, a place for dreamers-like our kids—they dream but all us old folks complain and talk negative about everything—just like our parents and their parents and so on—the world only gets better over time in spite of the naysayers and evil-doers—-The New Haven Public School system without a doubt is the best urban district in the country—-choice, collaboration, parent involvement, innovation, renovated schools throughout the district which our children deserve—nowhere in the US has anyone come near to what we have put in place in order to make our students performance second to none—you doubters, those of you who are jaded from false promises of the past—have to let go and get on board—for this is the place, the time, the plan that can make it happen for our whole school community—and we need you—SO
Noteworthy-Some kids will never write a paper, and that’s OK for they may choose to change your tires, fix your toilet, build your house, wire your electric, landscape your yard and be the best that they can be without Shakespeare—and that’s ok with me and certainly with them (and that’s all that counts)—Swatty—for those who were kept back in school-it only harmed them, psychologically and emotionally—for some students will never get it—and they can’t or shouldn’t be in third grade when they are 31 years old(how many times do you retain them)-Walt—don’t be so cynical—us old guys often are—please try to see what we are doing in New Haven and be proud of the risks we are taking—the whole country sees how progressive we are and will follow our lead—and AMPC—no hype—check us out 4 years from now—we are on our way—we will lead and we will succeed—it is our charge to motivate and excite every child to want to learn for the joy of learning itself—and when we do that—then we will have accomplished our mission—Tom

posted by: urban ed on March 30, 2013  11:55am

Tom, a big problem for us as educators (manifesting itself in the negative comments) is that EVERYONE feels uniquely qualified to weigh in on education since, of course, everyone has been through school, right? But the world bears NO resemblance to the one that existed when I was in school in the ‘70s. Why would we continue to flog a schooling model that was invented at the turn of the 20th century? There’s such nostalgia for the days when there were 40 kids in a classroom and all a principal did was ring the bells and strap the kids. Of course in those days, no one blinked at a 50% drop-out rate. Folks, it’s the 21’s century. Can we PLEASE end our love affair with 19th century schools? Can we PLEASE have a little respect for those who are trying to do things differently?

posted by: Riley Gibbs on April 1, 2013  6:03pm

The title of this article rings true for me: I really couldn’t tell you what a high school diploma means a child has learned.

I’m not sure I could tell you what it means to have completed middle school or elementary school either. So many of our students in high school come to us with deficiencies that make you wonder what’s been going on the last nine years of their school lives.

I don’t suggest that we just start blaming everyone (and I do mean everyone) for the role we’ve each played in this farce, but we should at least stop lying and pretending our students are meeting standards of which they fall short.