In the Classroom

Plan to require more math, offer fewer diploma options raises concerns

PHOTO: Photo by David Armstrong via Flikr

With Indiana poised to move forward to adopt new definitions for how to qualify for its high school diplomas, parents and educators are still concerned about what it could mean for kids with special needs and other learning barriers.

Jason Bearce, with the Commission on Higher Education, said upping requirements is intended, in part, satisfy the needs of employers seeking workers who have more math skills. In each new diploma option, two to four more credits of math are required, which could equal one or two more years of study. Many states are moving toward diplomas that require more credits and more challenging coursework, Bearce said.

In 2014 Bearce said state legislators asked the Indiana Career Council to recommend how to improve the state’s diplomas. Today’s special meeting of the Indiana State Board of Education was to consider recommendations, which include offering just three diploma types instead of four while adding new required coursework.

“We’re not really talking about monstrous change in terms of what we expect from students,” Bearce said. “Colleges and employers for the most part speak with fairly consistent voice on this.”

Under the plan, there would be a “college and career ready” diploma, an “honors” diploma or a “workforce ready diploma” starting for kids who are high school freshmen in 2018. Currently there are four diploma options: General, Core 40, Core 40 honors and career and technical honors diplomas.

“The wide range of diploma options now is confusing,” Bearce said. “It’s confusing to students, it’s confusing to parents and sometimes, it even makes counselor’s jobs more difficult. A lot of this is about simplifying the process.”

But parents and educators still think the new options just don’t fit for some students. Beatriz Joyce, the mother of a kindergartner who has Down syndrome, said she wants her daughter to have every opportunity in her education — and that includes the chance to earn a high school diploma. Dropping the general diploma could make that much more difficult.

“Like everyone else she has her strengths and weakness, and we have high expectations for her,” Joyce told the board. “She might not be able to become a doctor or teacher, but I will be happy to know that at the very least she will be able to participate and get a high school diploma.”

Indiana state law today doesn’t require all school districts to offer all four diploma options. Some districts only offer the Core 40 diploma, suggested for students who want to go on to four-year colleges or professional fields, as the least-demanding option.

Ritz said a recent survey reported that half of Indiana schools do not offer a general diploma.

Tammy Hurm with the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education said the group this year will advocate to the legislature that all schools should offer all diplomas. Some schools today have stopped offering the general diploma, intended for students who will go straight into the workforce, to the frustration of parents like Joyce.

Students who would prefer to earn a general diploma but attend schools that don’t offer it can be stuck finishing school but not earning a diploma. Instead, some earn a just certificate of completion. That can leave them unqualified for future jobs that expect evidence of academic accomplishments.

“If a student has a certificate of completion and is asked a question on job application, ‘do you have a high school diploma?’ can that student answer yes?” board member Vince Bertram asked.

“At this point, no,” said Jenny Berry, a representative from the Indiana Department of Education.

Mike McDivitt, principal at Oak Hill High School, said he doesn’t believe another year of required math makes a diploma more “rigorous,” but creates a hardship for schools that have to provide even more classes without any extra state aid to help pay for those costs, and for students who might already be getting extra help for math.

“Almost all the students at Oak Hill High School that earn a general diploma have already completed three years of high school math,” McDivitt said. “Many enter high school underprepared in Algebra 1, and many take two years to complete that.”

But the majority of students with special needs do graduate with Core 40 diplomas, Bearce said, and he doesn’t believe the new diplomas have to be a barrier to them.

Berry said the diploma committee is looking into how the certificate of completion can be strengthened so students who earn it qualify for a wider range of jobs.

“We want to push Indiana in the right direction, but we don’t want to create something untenable in terms of implementation,” Bearce said.

The diploma committee is scheduled to meet again Friday, Ritz said, and diplomas must be approved by the state board by Dec. 1.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.