Friday, April 15, 2005

The Problem with Freshmen

In today's Boston Globe, there is an article discussing the promotion of 9th graders. The data in the article are for Massachusettes schools, but my bet is that high schools all around the country have similar difficulties.

The article illustrates the ever present achievement gap, in that students from poorer, high minority high schools are more likely to be held back in 9th grade than students in weathier schools. Data from NAEP (you'll have to do the data mining yourself) shows that the achievement gap often isn't so bad at 4th grade, but it grows wide and then enormous through 8th and then 12th grade. Poor/minority high schools are often the victims of failing middle schools. But to their own discredit high schools often are not able to focus their resources on solving the problems they inherit. So, it's everybody's fault.

The article lists some ways that schools are dealing with the problem of unprepared and overwhelmed rising 9th graders. Typically these solutions focus on creating small academies within high schools, decreasing class and aparent school sizes, utilizing teachers who only focus on the 9th grade transition classes, instituting marginally high expectation curricula, and providing extensive external supports. These programs, when run effectively and honestly, seem to work.

To me, the fact that these programs work indicates that we need to re-evaluate what "high school" really means. Are we doing a disservice to even the highest performing students in traditional settings? This country (and really no country) has never really evaluated what we want out of education. Similarly to the world of physics, we accept what has happened before us, becuase it seems to work for those of us still standing on graduation day. What would a model educational system look like? How much of that education should occur within the traditional school model? What do I want for my child, and what should I demand for every child? Hopefully, the stresses put onto the system by NCLB will help more people address some of these questions.

--An addendum. In the article, one of the school administrators is made to feel defensive about their school's policy of holding back 9th graders whom the school does not feel can pass the state test. The administrator denies that the decision is based on the student's ability to pass the state test and is actually based on the ability of the student to perform well in classes. Many critics of NCLB would point to that administrator and shout "liar", because 9th graders who are held back do not have to take the 10th grade test, thus inflating the school's test score numbers, and further that the test scores are meaningless.

I would say not so fast. Yes, it's unfortunate that student's come to high school woefully underprepared (maybe 5 grade levels below), but by the end of 9th grade, the high school has only had one year to do anything about the problem. If the student is that far behind, then they shouldn't be taking the state test yet, and they should be spending their time learning more in order to catch up. If the school does a good job in keeping that kid in school for the next 4-5 years (admittedly hard), then the work that the school did in the student's second 9th grade was worth it, and the test worked just the way that it should have.

Because, without the test, we all know that the underprepared student would have just been passed along and graduated with no skills. The test causes the school to worry about that student. The school may not handle the student perfectly, but at least now they have to worry.


At 12:27 PM, Blogger hoagieboy said...

My comment: Excellent points and excellent post.

My questions for you:
What do you want out of education? What would highschool look like if you could do whatever you wanted with it? Do you think everyone needs to go to highschool?

- Maki girl


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