Good thing Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan is starting a yearlong listening tour on an ambitious plan to require high school students to pass end-of-course exams, among other new criteria, before they could earn diplomas.
These new standards sound reasonable, but the reality is that right now they would have a punitive effect on urban schools. Mostly, the proposal would illuminate what we already know about public education: Our suburban students outpace their urban mates. And despite a reputation for stellar public schools, Connecticut has the widest achievement gap in the country between white students and their black and brown peers.
The gap is so wide that more than 400 educators gathered recently in Waterbury for a first-ever state summit on reading. Some educators are calling the situation a crisis. In Hartford, for example, only 15 percent of third-graders were reading at grade level.Before we start revamping high school curriculum, Connecticut's primary focus should be in early childhood education and intensifying the preparation for these youngsters. The achievement gap is really all about a lack of preparation. Third grade, educators will tell you, is the crucial year in a child's development. If they fall behind there, you can lose them quickly. So, just imagine if we can keep the large majority of urban third-grade students at or above grade level.
Two state principals — one urban, one suburban — have grave concerns about the commissioner's proposed restructuring of the high schools.
"It'll be a major, major setback for many of our kids," said Paul Stringer, principal of Hartford's Weaver High School. "We're beginning to see positive progression as students are moving from grade to grade in the elementary schools. But right now, it's not reaching the high schools. And it probably won't reach the high schools until three or four years."
At that time — the 2011-12 school year — McQuillan would like to see the high school reforms implemented. Stringer and Branford High School Principal Edmund C. Higgins predict that one result will be larger dropout rates.
"All the research shows that requiring these kinds of high-stakes tests significantly increases the dropout rate," Higgins wrote to McQuillan in a Nov. 29 letter that is making the rounds in education circles.
"Students drop out, not because they 'cannot do the work'; the research is absolutely clear that students drop out because what they are being asked to learn in school is perceived as boring and irrelevant to their lives and individual needs."
California's dropout rate increased significantly last year, the first year seniors were required to take an exit exam in order to graduate. Ten thousand more students dropped out than in 2002. In Massachusetts, students have responded well to the testing.
More than 70 percent of U.S. public high school students by 2010 will have to pass one or more exit exams to graduate, according to the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. Some states, like California, require a single exit exam to graduate. Others, such as what Connecticut is proposing, use end-of-course exams in selected subjects like algebra I and II, biology, U.S. history and English II.
Just so there's no misunderstanding:
I'm all for higher standards in education. But Connecticut has a Herculean task in narrowing the achievement gap. Before we move forward on raising the bar on high school student achievement, how 'bout we narrow the gap first?
And that, friends, starts in the elementary schools.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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