Do Students in the Big Five, Rural Schools and Low-Wealth Districts Receive the Same Rigorous, Robust, Well-Balanced, Coherent Curriculum as Students in High-Wealth Districts?

Every month I sit in the audience at the NYS Board of Regents meetings, listen to the discussion/debate over a wide range of issues and tweet  – you can follow me @edintheapple.

The major topic on every agenda will be Graduation Measures, a wide ranging discussion of graduation requirements including the exit exams: the Regents examinations.

See the Graduation Measures website here.

Some of my twitter repliers were cynical, “…there already is a plan,” “Gates is manipulating the process,” and like. I tweeted back that reaching consensus among the members of the Regents (BOR) is akin to herding cats; no disrespect to cats or the members. The BOR members, thirteen representing geographic sections of the state (judicial districts) and four at-large are an fiercely independent group. They are unpaid and unstaffed, and, are expected to attend meetings and visit schools across their region.

Although they are selected in a political process, they are “elected” for five year terms by a joint meeting of both house of the state legislature, in reality by the Democratic majority. While there is no statutory or regulatory process at the end of a five year term or if a member leaves the positions are posted and anyone can apply. All applicants are interviewed in Albany at open meetings by the chairs of the education committees and other members who choose to attend. In the Westchester/Rockland district the legislators have held public interviews in their region, in others consultations with stakeholders. While Speaker Silver selected BOR members without any scrutiny Speaker Heastie has followed the opinions of local legislators.

Five of the BOR members have served as superintendents (Cashin, Chin, Rosa Young, Ouderkirk), Susan Mittler was a teacher union president, Dr. Collins a nurse, Dr. Cottrell a medical doctor, Nan Mead a parent activist, Andrew Brown an attorney, they all are vigorous representatives of their geographic regions.

Whether the massive investment of time and resources is worth the effort only time will tell. A decade ago the BOR spent months hosting forums around the state addressing the same topic. Commissioner John King proposed a range of changes in graduation requirements, the BOR was divided and only a few of the recommendations became policy.

I have written about this topic in detail, here and  here.

To assist in the effort the SED/BOR will partner with Achieve, a not-for-profit that recently published a report   compiling the graduation requirements in all fifty states, additionally SED/BOR received a 100K grant from the Gates foundation to hire part time research associates – there will be thousands of comments and hundreds of research tomes to comb.

Achieve has strong, research-based opinions,

 For students to truly graduate ready for college and careers, however, they need to complete a rigorous, robust and well-rounded curriculum that exposes them to a wide range of academic and technical knowledge and skills to ensure all doors are left open for them when they leave high school.

 The words they use are replicated in study after study, “… a rigorous, robust and well-rounded curriculum,” does New York State offer such a curriculum?

The question of whether or not the state continues to utilize regents as an exit exam should not be at the core of this investigation.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) every state must conduct high school tests in English and Mathematics. states use the SAT, ACT, Smarter Balance or PARRC. If New York State totally abandoned the regents they would have to move to one of the exams supra.  For example, we could be substituting the SAT for the regents.

Eleven states utilize exit exams; however, 26 states use End-of-Course tests (EoC).

New York State could retain regents and us them as End-of-Course tests, not exit exams.

A recent Fordham Institute study explored the use of End-of-Course tests, and reported,

*  EOCs have been most widely used in math and science courses, but their use in English courses has risen fastest in the past decade.

 *  Most states use EOCs for a mix of school and student accountability.

 *  Unlike exit exams, EOCs are generally positively correlated with high school graduation rates.

The study goes on to recommend,

  1. Embrace EOCs to leverage the potential benefits associated with external assessments without encountering the concerns raised about exit exams.
  2. Consider building high school accountability systems around EOCs, given the suggestive evidence that they can help improve student outcomes.
  3. Use EOCs to encourage students to put more effort into their own studies, perhaps by linking them to graduation or including them in course grades or on report cards.

Whether or not we require exit exams or move to end-of-courses or the SAT is not the issue, the issue is whether we are providing  “… a rigorous, robust and well-rounded curriculum,” that is aligned throughout the system, that is currently not the case.  EdReports  tells us that,

… unless all students are able to engage with quality materials, we will continue to perpetuate opportunity gaps and create barriers for kids to experience life-changing learning that could help them thrive in school and beyond.”

 In a searingly honest appraisal David Steiner paints a picture of an incoherent array of efforts from schools of education to school districts to states, he asks,

In what school of education are teachers prepared to teach powerful and demanding works of literature to students who are two or three grade levels below the level required to make real sense of those texts? (I know of none, but would like to be mistaken.) Is there a high-quality ELA curriculum that includes materials for teachers whose students are below grade level? In how many districts are principal evaluation tools supplemented by curriculum-specific rubrics? Beyond the quizzes and curriculum-embedded assessments, how many standalone interim assessments actually measure students’ knowledge of what their curriculum asks them to read? How many summative assessments do the same? Where can we find RTI models that are integrated with specific curriculum?

At the BOR November meeting one session, entitled, “What Success Looks Like,” the superintendent from a district that surpassed the overall NYS graduation rate with a rate of over 80 percent for young men of color reported on why the district acheivement was far above other districts with similar demographics,

Extensive opportunities/early access – AP courses, college credit, Career Pathways: engineering, bio-med, business and communications, the arts… • Students report “classes are hard” and “teachers are tough” within a context of a “high care” environment. Teachers go above and beyond what is required and make personal investments in students.

 Until we can assure that students in all schools, the highest poverty schools in the Big Five,  rural schools and high wealth schools. offer the same high quality rigorous, robust and well-rounded curriculum the Graduation Measures efforts will be fruitless.

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