DC adult learners may qualify for regular diplomas–whatever those mean

DC education officials are planning to grant high school diplomas to adults who complete high school equivalency programs. But some members of the State Board of Education have challenged one program’s rigor, raising the question: What does a DC high school diploma actually signify?

Man And Woman Graduates

Adults in DC who pass the GED exam currently receive a certificate, not a high school diploma. Some employers and colleges prefer a diploma.

In 2014, the GED organization overhauled the test, aligning it to the Common Core educational standards. The computer-based exam is now seven hours long and calibrated so that 40% of traditional high school graduates wouldn’t be able to pass it.

In recognition of that increased rigor, DC’s State Board of Education (SBOE) recently directed the State Superintendent of Education to draft regulations that would award high school diplomas to GED graduates. But in a more controversial move, the regulations would also confer state diplomas on those who graduate from the lesser-known National External Diploma Program (NEDP).

Rather than taking a single test, NEDP graduates must demonstrate 70 different “competencies” in subjects like financial literacy, civic literacy, history, and science. Students work one-on-one with a “buddy” and then are assessed individually on each competency.

The NEDP works better for some adults, but its rigor is unclear

Adult educators say the NEDP, intended for students 25 and older, is better than the GED for people who suffer from test anxiety or have unpredictable work schedules that prevent them from attending regular classes. There are NEDP programs in seven states in addition to DC, which has eight NEDP sites.

The developers of the NEDP say the assessment, like the GED, has been revamped to be more rigorous. And administrators at Academy of Hope, a DC adult charter school that offers both the GED and the NEDP, agree. Five of the six students who got the NEDP credential at the Academy last year are now enrolled in college and are doing well, they say.

But Ward 3 SBOE member Ruth Wattenberg and two of her colleagues have asked for objective evidence of the NEDP’s rigor, along the lines of the documentation provided for the GED. The NEDP specifies standards and tasks—such as “Describe contributions from diverse cultures to life in the United States”—and requires students to demonstrate “mastery” of each of them. But, Wattenberg argues, it’s not clear whether mastery means a Ph.D.-level thesis or a simple paragraph.

In response to Wattenberg’s questions, the State Superintendent of Education, Hanseul Kang, has promised that testing experts at her agency will conduct an independent evaluation of the NEDP’s rigor before the SBOE votes on the regulations at its meeting on January 20th.

One wrinkle is that graduates of the NEDP program already get regular diplomas, albeit ones issued by individual high schools rather than by the State Superintendent. At Academy of Hope, for example, NEDP graduates get diplomas from Ballou STAY, an alternative DC Public School high school that is also an NEDP site.

Kang says her office included the NEDP in the proposed regulations to ensure that in the future, graduates get a diploma regardless of where they complete the program. But the fact is, the proposed regulations wouldn’t change the current situation for NEDP graduates.

Still, Wattenberg says that including the NEDP in the regulations without evidence of the test’s rigor would set a dangerous precedent and—if it’s put in the same basket as the GED—unfairly dilute the value of a state diploma for GED graduates.

What level of rigor does a regular diploma require?

That may be true. But a larger problem is that we don’t know the level of rigor required to obtain a regular DC high school diploma.

Yes, DC’s graduation requirements, which are Common Core-aligned and include three years of math, look rigorous on paper. And it’s true students have to pass their courses in order to graduate.

But those familiar with high-poverty high schools say students are often promoted from grade to grade without having mastered course content. Teachers may be under pressure to keep up a school’s graduation rate, or they may not want students with behavior problems back in their classrooms for another year.

And some high-poverty high schools saw none of their students score proficient in reading or math on Common Core-aligned tests given last year. On last year’s SAT, eight DCPS high schools had average scores below 1,000, well below the national average of 1,490.

Current graduation requirements are unrealistically high

A more fundamental question is whether we’ve set high school graduation requirements—including those for the new GED, and possibly the NEDP—unrealistically high, based on the assumption that all students need to be prepared for college. We shouldn’t exclude any students from a college prep curriculum if they’re willing to do the work, but we also need to provide high-quality options for those who want to head straight into the workforce.

Over 60,000 DC residents 18 or older lack a high school diploma or its equivalent. Many need diplomas to enter apprenticeship programs in the construction trades, or to move up in fields like health care or day care.

But officials at Academy of Hope say 90% of their students arrive functioning at or below a 6th-grade level. And it takes 400 hours to prepare them for the new GED, as compared to 100 for the old one. The numbers taking the tests have dropped significantly because of the new rigor, they say.

The biggest obstacle is algebra, as it is for students at traditional high schools. But according to one estimate, only 5% of entry-level workers actually need to be proficient in algebra. Are we simply putting an artificial barrier between people who could handle the demands of many jobs and employers who would like to hire them?

We should require that a high school diploma signifies a certain level of achievement, as Wattenberg argues. But ideally, that requirement would apply not just to adult learners but also to the many more who obtain diplomas the usual way.

And we need to question the assumption that high school or its equivalent is just a stepping-stone to college, especially when so few DC high school students get there. True, a high school diploma alone doesn’t mean much in the job market these days. But that could change if we started equipping high school students with skills that would actually render them valuable to employers.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Education.

DC schools are missing an opportunity to equip students for coding jobs

In recent years schools in the District have expanded opportunities for students to learn computer coding, an occupation where demand is outpacing supply. But they could do much more to engage low-income students in a potentially lucrative career path that doesn’t necessarily require a college degree.

Teenager working on computer

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the importance of teaching computer science in K-12 schools. Last week was Computer Science Education Week, during which students in DC and around the world participated in online tutorials billed as an Hour of Code. As part of the fanfare, the incoming Education Secretary, John King, visited a classroom at DC’s McKinley Tech High School.

DC and 26 states now allow computer science courses to count towards graduation requirements, up from only 12 states two years ago. At least two DC charter high schools offer coding classes, and DC Public Schools offer a wide range of computer-related courses and extracurricular activities, although it’s not clear how many students take advantage of them.

But much of the effort in DC and elsewhere is aimed at getting students to enroll in college and major in computer science. King, for example, asked how many of the two dozen students he addressed at McKinley wanted to study computer science in college. He was pleased when over half raised their hands.

There’s nothing wrong with students majoring in computer science in college, of course. In fact, it’s an excellent idea. The median salary for computer programmers is over $76,000. There are currently over half a million open computing jobs, according to Code.org, and last year fewer than 40,000 people graduated with computer science degrees. Forecasters predict that mismatch between demand and supply will continue at least through 2020.

The shortage of qualified college graduates is already creating pressure on employers to hire people who can simply do the work, whether or not they have the credentials. At Google, for example, 14% of the members of some teams have no college education. In general, 38% of those working as web developers aren’t college graduates.

Some coders and programmers are self-trained, while others have gone through coding “boot camps” that give participants the skills they need in a matter of months. Although Obama administration officials are intent on encouraging students to go to college, they’ve also launched an effort to enroll more “low-skilled” individuals in coding boot camps and match them with employers.

Why not teach coding skills before kids graduate from high school?

No doubt these programs can be lifesavers for many who don’t have the interest or resources to acquire a college degree. But why wait until after they’ve graduated from high school? Why not give students in K-12 schools the opportunity to acquire the skills they need to snag a well-paying coding job if they want one?

That’s the theory behind the efforts of one DC nonprofit to bring coding classes to low-income kids beginning in 5th grade. The Economic Growth DC Foundation is in its second year of sponsoring its Code4Life program, which runs free weekly classes at one DCPS and two charter schools. The idea is that students will remain in the afterschool program through high school, receiving a series of digital badges that will ultimately render them employable as coders.

On a recent afternoon at KIPP DC Northeast Academy, kids in the program weren’t focused on their future career prospects. But they were engaged and having fun. In one classroom, a half-dozen 5th-graders were using a simple program called SNAP to create intricate moving designs on their laptops. Down the hall, a group of 6th- and 7th-graders were learning how to use Excel spreadsheets to manipulate data.

At the same time, the kids were breaking down operations into steps and making the computations necessary to write their programs, acquiring logical reasoning and math skills that will serve them well regardless of what they ultimately choose to do.

Code4Life currently serves a total of only 75 students and relies on volunteers from Accenture and other places, including area colleges, to put together its curriculum and teach classes. The foundation’s chairman, Dave Oberting, says he’d like to expand the program to more schools, but that would require funding to hire paid staff.

Ideally, Oberting says, he’d like to see coding become a standard part of the curriculum throughout DC. Code4Life, he says, “is a mechanism for showing that [teaching coding] isn’t that difficult.”

In some places, coding class is mandatory for all

Other school systems are managing to do it. Earlier this year, Arkansas passed a law requiring all public and charter high schools to offer computer science classes. Some places are starting before high school—a good idea, considering that most adult coders say they became interested in computers before the age of 16.

The Chicago, New York, and San Francisco school districts have pledged to start teaching computer science to students of all ages. A largely low-income and Hispanic elementary school district near Phoenix is requiring every student to take coding classes. And beginning this year, Great Britain is mandating computer science classes for all students from the age of five.

One problem impeding some of these efforts is the difficulty of hiring qualified teachers, because people with computer skills can generally find better-paying jobs. But teacher salaries are relatively high in DC, so that might not present as much of an obstacle here.

Considering the potential benefits, all schools in the District—and particularly those serving low-income kids—should find a way to teach the basics of computer coding beginning in elementary school. And given the fact that fewer than 10% of poor children graduate with a college degree, DCPS and charter schools need to stop focusing blindly on their “college for all” mantra and start equipping students with the means to make a decent living with a high school diploma.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Education.

Lower test scores aren’t necessarily a sign we’re heading in the wrong direction

This week Mayor Muriel Bowser and other DC officials released long-awaited results for grades 3 through 8 from the Common Core-aligned tests given last spring. As expected, scores were far lower than on the old tests, especially for low-income and minority students. But that doesn’t necessarily mean DC schools are on the wrong track.

Bowser2 at presser

Proficiency rates on DC’s old standardized reading and math tests hovered around 50%. On the new tests—devised by a consortium called PARCC, and taken by students in DC and 11 states—the proficiency rate is only about 25%.

But scores on the new tests aren’t equally lower for all students. White students did far better than average on the PARCC tests, while minority and low-income students did worse. That was true on the old tests as well, but—as with the previously released high school PARCC scores—the gaps on the new tests are even larger.

Scores on the PARCC tests fall into five categories, with the highest two (4 and 5) considered to be meeting or exceeding expectations for “college and career readiness.” As you can see from the chart below, far more white students fell into that category than black or Hispanic students. And far more black and Hispanic students than whites fell into the lowest category, “Did not yet meet expectations.”

Graphs from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
Graphs from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

The gap is even larger between white students and other groups, such as students in special education (SPED) and English Language Learners (ELL). (The “at-risk” category includes students in foster care or receiving government benefits.)

PARCC 2015_subgroup

On the old reading tests given in 2014, the gaps between whites on the one hand and blacks and low-income students on the other were about ten percentage points smaller than on the PARCC. The gap between white and Hispanic students was about 15 points smaller, while the gap for SPED students was only one point smaller.

If you want to explore the PARCC data in detail, there are various spreadsheets and other resources available on this DC government website, and a series of nifty interactive graphics are on the District, Measured blog.

The PARCC reading tests assume more knowledge

Why have the gaps grown? The unsurprising answer is that the tests have gotten harder. And, as various officials explained at the rather sober press conference called to unveil the new scores, that’s something that needed to happen. The old tests were so easy they didn’t mean much. As in other cities, students in DC—especially poor, minority students—were graduating from high school without the skills they needed to enroll in college courses or embark on career training, even if they’d scored proficient on the tests.

And what makes these new tests harder? I’m not that familiar with the Common Core math tests, although I know they require students to demonstrate they understand math concepts rather than just apply math rules. On the reading side, though, the basic reason is that the reading passages on the test assume that students know more vocabulary and are familiar with a wider range of concepts.

Standardized reading tests, by their nature, don’t test any particular body of knowledge. Instead, the tests assess a student’s general ability to understand whatever is put in front of her. That’s partly because different schools are teaching different content. And of course, it’s important for students to develop general reading ability in order to function well in school and in life.

But, as cognitive scientists have shown, the ability to understand a given text depends a lot on whether you’re already familiar with the words and concepts it contains. That may make intuitive sense: just think of what it’s like to try to read a passage on, say, cellular biology if you know nothing about the subject. What’s harder for some of us to grasp is how many words and concepts minority and low-income children aren’t familiar with.

PARCC and the other Common Core testing consortium, SBAC, have released sample questions that provide an idea of the kind of knowledge and vocabulary the tests assume children will have. According to a group called Student Achievement Partners, the 3rd-grade questions use words like fraying, spouting, blossom, nifty, scorched, and nutrients. They also present topics and concepts like Babe Ruth, Indonesia, and the U.S. Congress, along with biological terms like gills, larva, and pupa.

More affluent 3rd-graders may not know all these terms, but—as the PARCC test scores indicate—they’re more likely to have heard enough of them to be able figure out what a passage is basically about. (Cognitive scientists have estimated that a reader needs to be familiar with 90 to 95% of the words in a passage to comfortably understand it.) Studies have shown that children of wealthier, more educated parents hear far more words and engage in more dialogue than their low-income counterparts almost from birth, and they enter school with significantly higher literacy skills.

Schools can help close the knowledge gap

Some have concluded that, since so much of literacy is dependent on family background, there’s not much schools can do about this situation. And schooling can actually make it worse: some studies indicate that the achievement gap grows the longer kids stay in school. But the fact is, we don’t know what schools might be able to do to close the gap, because most elementary schools serving low-income kids haven’t spent much time trying to systematically build their knowledge and vocabulary.

Instead, they’ve focused on the comprehension skills the tests seem to call for: finding the main idea, making inferences, and—in the Common Core era—connecting claims to evidence in the text. But if kids don’t have the knowledge and vocabulary to understand a reading passage in the first place, they won’t be able to demonstrate any of those skills on the test. And it may take years for a low-income student to acquire enough knowledge to do well on a test of general reading ability.

“People want us to just flip a switch, and young people will be off to Harvard,” DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said at Monday’s press conference. “That’s not the way it works.”

She’s right: these things take time. The real question is whether schools in DC are on the right track. Henderson and others point to data in the test results to argue that the answer is yes: generally higher test scores at the lower grade levels than in high school. That shows, they say, that kids exposed to the Common Core approach from an early age are getting it, and that they’ll continue to do better when they reach high school.

But the tests get harder in high school, and kids may just hit a wall—as they have in the past, even on easier tests. And the disparity in scores only holds true for math. In reading, the percentage of students scoring proficient was essentially the same at all grade levels, including high school.

Still, some DC schools are on the right track. A number of educators in DC, in both the charter and traditional public school sectors, have grasped the importance of building knowledge, especially for students who are disadvantaged. I’ve been in classrooms where kids are lapping up facts, words, and ideas that will serve them well in high school and beyond. Whether and when that knowledge shows up in their test scores should be a secondary consideration.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Education.