chasing a diploma

Can you avoid conflict in the break room? It could now help you graduate from high school in New York

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post

What should you do if you’re throwing an office party but you can’t store food in the company refrigerator — cancel the party, hide the food and hope no one notices, or politely ask for permission?

What if your coworkers are grumbling about the new dress code mandating starched shirts? Should you refuse to follow the code, join their protests, or work together to suggest a change?

Students in New York state can now earn a high school diploma, in part, by answering questions like those.

Students still need to pass the famously rigorous Regents exams in order to graduate, too. But recent changes, sparked by growing criticism about students trapped by tougher graduation requirements, mean that instead of passing five, they only need to pass four. A work-readiness credential can now replace the fifth.

Among the ways students can earn that credential: passing a multiple-choice test designed to assess broad entry-level work skills. The tests emphasize real-life situations and peg questions to middle school-level reading and math skills.

State officials say new option will help more students get to graduation — and allow students to show they have what it takes to succeed in the workplace. But some are now worried that it could be simple enough to allow any student to circumvent higher-level work.

”I think you’re creating an opportunity which is more or less a universal opportunity” to check off a graduation requirement, James Tallon, a member of New York’s Board of Regents, said about the credential last month.

The idea was that students would spend hundreds of hours on vocational coursework and job shadowing. One option for earning the credential — designed in 2013 for students with disabilities — has students spend 216 hours on a combination of coursework and work-based learning.

But the regulation also allows students to forgo that path for one of four approved work-readiness tests — potentially a more attractive option for schools under pressure to get more students over the finish line.

State officials defended the exams, saying that they require preparation and noting that schools must also offer work experience. The rules do not say students have to participate, though. And with graduation just months away, some schools are exploring the test option for this year’s seniors.

“There is no way to get kids, at this point, [option] number one for this year,” said Erin Stark, director of special education at New Visions for Public Schools, which operates seven charter high schools in the city. “There isn’t enough time.”

Last year, New York began allowing students to swap in another test for one of their five required Regents exams. Some of the new options require career training in subjects such as accounting and welding, and officials say they are meant to help students who are unlikely to go to college gain valuable skills that they can deploy immediately after graduation.

The new work-readiness option has also raised eyebrows among some involved with career and technical programs, who see a double standard emerging.

Over the past few years, the state convened a “blue ribbon” commission complete with a study by researchers from Harvard and Cornell to ensure that the technical exams approved to take the place of Regents exams were comparable and rigorous.

Connie Costley, the president of the New York State Association for Career and Technical Education and a teacher in Kingston, New York, fears students will use the new pathway to avoid more challenging — and useful — courses.

“We question whether it has the rigor that the Regents exams does,” Costley said. “A lot of time and energy and money went into saying, if you pass this [CTE] exam, it has to be equal.”

The work-readiness exams do not aspire to test the same skills as Regents or CTE exams, and state officials said making direct comparisons between the two was unfair.

It is unclear how many students could end up graduating because of the credential. About 1,800 students earned the CDOS credential last year, when it was available only for students with disabilities and didn’t help students earn a traditional diploma.

Some high schools have someone like Stark calling their attention to the testing option, but others are just starting to investigate what the credential could mean for their students.

At Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, principal Ari Hoogenboom is hopeful that the new pathway will be a big boost for those on the edge of graduating. While discussing the option requiring work-based experience, Hoogenboom said it might allow up to 30 additional students to graduate high school.

“I don’t just want to graduate kids for the sake of graduating them, but at the same time, at a certain point, [failing students] almost seems abusive,” Hoogenboom said.

That was the logic used by Regents as they approved the new option, which was passed as an emergency regulation that the board must vote to make permanent in June. Back in March, some Regents raised concerns about the credential’s rigor. But those were eventually outweighed by a desire to help students graduate this year.

“If I’m going to err,” Regent Beverly Ouderkirk said before the vote, “I want to err on the side of kids.”

Update: This story was updated to reflect that Erin Stark, the director of special education at New Visions for Public Schools, works with seven charter high schools in the city.

Feedback loop

Colorado’s education plan earns cheers, jeers from national reform groups

Miguel Rosales, 8, middle, does as many push ups as he can while friends David Perez, 8, left, and Julio Rivera, 9, right, watch during PE class taught by Chris Strater at Lyn Knoll Elementary School on December 14, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Reviews of Colorado’s federally required education plan are beginning to trickle in from national observers. And they’re mixed.

What’s there to love, according to national education think-tanks? Colorado is taking seriously new requirements to include more information about how students are succeeding in school.

What’s there to gripe about? The state’s plan is not very detailed and lacks strong goals for student achievement, which critics say raises questions about how it plans to improve schools.

Colorado was one of the first states earlier this year to submit its plan to comply with updated federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — to the U.S. Department of Education. The State Board of Education and state education department officials spent more than a year developing the plan with scores of teachers, advocates, parents and business leaders.

While state officials wait for an official response from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who must approve the plan to keep federal dollars flowing to the state’s schools — there’s no shortage of commentary from the education reform class.

Here’s what you need to know about three reports released this summer on Colorado’s education plan:

The Collaborative for Student Success has the most detailed look at the state’s plan — and is the most critical.

While this organization, which worked with Bellwether Education Partners, praised Colorado for its commitment to rigorous academic standards and data reporting, it raised several red flags that are consistent with some early criticism that the federal education department has shared with other states.

Chiefly: Colorado’s long-term academic goals are based on a confusing percentile system and make no sense.

Instead of setting a goal to increase the number of students reaching proficiency on state exams, the state wants to increase its average test scores during the next six years.

While that sounds simple enough, the goals are muddled because the state has set the same goal for different student populations. Students with disabilities who historically earn the lowest test scores are expected to raise their achievement to meet the state average. Meanwhile, Asian students who historically outperform the state would need to lose ground in order for the state to meet its goals.

The goals, the organization says, are “difficult for parents, educators and the public to understand, (do) not set strong expectations for all schools and all groups of students to improve, and may not be ambitious” enough.

The group also raised serious concerns about the state’s lack of detail in several areas, including how the state would weigh different factors that determine school quality.

Throughout the development of the plan, Colorado officials repeatedly said that they intended to provide limited responses to the federal education department’s questionnaire, which guided the plan’s development.

That’s because they believed the new education law’s intent was to provide states with greater flexibility and less federal oversight. Therefore, Colorado officials reasoned, the federal education department didn’t need an excessive level of detail.

What’s more, the federal law does give states the opportunity to continually update and amend their plans. That’s something Colorado plans to do as it receives guidance from the federal government and the state legislature.

Colorado’s plan continues to garner praise from the center-right Fordham Institute.

The folks at the Fordham Institute can’t say enough good things about Colorado’s plan. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit came out early with an editorial praising the plan’s development. Now they are giving Colorado strong marks across the board.

Fordham graded state plans in three areas regarding school quality ratings: were they clear, focused on all students and fair to schools that serve mostly poor students?

What really gets Fordham revved up is Colorado’s switch to a normative approach of rating schools. Most states rate schools based on how many students meet or exceed a certain proficiency standard on annual English and math tests. Colorado rates schools based on a school’s average score on those tests. The closer the school is to the overall state average, the better the quality score.

Fordham and state officials believe this move requires schools to focus on the performance of all students, not just those who are near the proficiency line. Critics argue that the measure can be misleading.

Colorado is one of eight states to include a variety of “promising practices.” But it’s not the leading the pack.

A third group, Results for America, took a slightly different approach in critiquing the first batch of state plans. Working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, Results for America identified 13 strategies states could use in their plans as ways to improve student learning.

Strategies include giving federal tax dollars only to schools that are using proven reform methods and creating a state system to support school turnaround efforts.

Colorado’s plan included four of the 13 strategies. Meanwhile, New Mexico is using nine and Tennessee is using seven.

Colorado’s plan was recognized for requiring schools to create annual improvement plans that are based on proven techniques and consolidating multiple grant applications for school improvement work into one.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.