Ongoing negotiations among state legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to reach agreement on an education reform bill are driven in large part by the effort to close Connecticut's embarrassing achievement gap. The gulf between poor and more affluent students — which is generally a divide between minority and white students — in terms of their ability to meet standards in reading, writing and math is the largest in the United States.
My belief is that we can never effectively address the achievement gap until we critically examine the standards to which we hold students. Two basic benchmarks of achievement — standards for graduation and for participation in extracurricular activities — are glaring in their absence and in what they say about our expectations of students in Connecticut.
Connecticut, unlike neighboring New York and Massachusetts, lacks achievement standards for graduation. How can we say that we are committed to a world-class education if we don't require students to be able to read, write and do math as a requirement for graduation?
How can that be, you say? All that students have to do to graduate is obtain 22 credits. There are no required demonstrations of competence in reading, writing and math. Students in New York, for example, must pass the state Regents exam, which tests their competency in key subject areas, before their high school diploma is awarded.
What is a high school diploma worth if a student cannot demonstrate competence in 10th-grade-level reading, writing and mathematics? The achievement gap is not just a function of test scores; it is ultimately an opportunity gap. In the final analysis it means that students lacking these basic skills will be denied access to a four-year college, a community college, a vocational technical school, the military and any job that requires functional literacy.
For students who participate in athletics, we need to raise the requirements for participation. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Association requires only that students pass four credits a year to participate in high school athletics. Over a four-year period, a student taking seven courses or credits a year could have a 0.5714 grade-point average and accrue only 16 credits and still be a varsity athlete for four years.
In the past two years, the New London Board of Education has had the courage and the foresight to pass the state's first literacy requirement for graduation and set a 2.0 grade-point average requirement for participation in extracurricular activities. The latter requirement will begin with a 1.7 average required in the school year beginning next fall and a 2.0 average in the next school year.
Although most people agree that students will reach for a higher bar, not everyone agrees with the 2.0 requirement. There are some who believe that extracurricular activities are the only thing keeping some at-risk students in school.
To these people we must have to have the courage to ask, "What exactly are the opportunities to which youths have access with a 0.5714 GPA (with D's in four out of seven courses) or a 0.6666 GPA (with D's in four out of six courses) over four years in high school?" Or, more to the point, what is the purpose of allowing our children to fail, so long as they are physically in the building?
How long can we say that we are committed to education reform when we have yet to set standards that enable graduating students to have choices about the educational opportunities they can pursue, and the careers and professions they may consider?
We need a statewide increase in the grade-point average requirement to participate in extracurricular activities, and literacy requirements before graduation in reading, writing and math to demonstrate that we are serious about closing the achievement gap. And we need to do so now.
Nicholas A. Fischer is superintendent of schools in New London.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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