Graduating Early “A Stupid Idea”?
In December 2010, at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meeting in Washington, DC, former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s test-centric education reforms were featured in the form of ALEC model legislation called the “A-plus Literacy Act,” an omnibus document that includes school and district letter grades, publicly-funded vouchers for private school attendance, corporate tax credits for donating money to voucher programs, alternative teacher certification, social promotion ban, and merit pay for teachers of Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
A corporate reform smorgasbord.
In the background and drafting notes for this piece of ALEC model legislation, the first point discussed involves “school and district report cards and grades” (see page 46 of the previous link).
The drafting notes include an important acknowledgement: Applying A-B-C-D-F letter grades to schools and districts is the “lynchpin for the reforms.”
A lynchpin is something vital to an enterprise. In this case, the enterprise is the reduction of the value of education to test scores and the resulting privatization of public education when those easily-manipulated, high-stakes test score outcomes indicate failure. The use of letter grades (as opposed to numbers or some other rating system, like a star rating system) to foster the effects of such test-centrism is that letter grades draw greater public and media attention.
Indeed they do.
Behind the letter grades are the test-score-dependent formulas used to arrive at those letter grades. So, high test scores become important for both public school and district survival, including school and district funding.
In the end, students and parents become pawns as schools vie for higher letter grades and increased funding associated with securing and retaining students who produce high test scores.
The above leads me to a discussion I had this weekend with one of my nephews. He attends a traditional public high school in southern Louisiana and is eligible to graduate a year early. He is interested in attending Louisiana State University (LSU) in fall 2016 and has already been granted conditional admission.
On a day trip to LSU this weekend, he told me the following story of the exploitation characteristic of test-score-obsessed education reform. I asked if he would mind writing about his experiences for my blog.
Here is his response:
Being a student. That’s all I’ve ever known. Since the day I entered high school, everything has been a competition: GPA, ranking, even scholarship offers. When I was younger, I remember hearing of a “smart people class.” Of course, in elementary school, kids just say anything for the attention of it– half of us didn’t even know how to tie our own shoes. However, I always knew I wanted to get into one of those “smart people classes”– which is exactly what I did.
Come middle school, I had been accepted into the magnet school program. I stayed in the magnet schools for a total of four years until I switched to a regular public school that offered the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. I thought that these classes would prepare me for college more so than what the magnet school could offer.
My first year in the IB program, sophomore year, was very educational. My teachers were excellent, and I believed some of the teachers that year were the best I had ever encountered. Also that year, I had decided to graduate a year early (making my junior year my senior year) since I had completed all of my freshman courses in my eighth-grade year. I visited the counselor’s office daily to remind them of my plans, so much so that I believe they got sick of me.
However, now that I am currently in my junior year (which for me is also my senior year), the road has not been so easy. The first week of this school year, the school requested that anyone who planned on graduating early have a parent conference meeting set up. So, of course, I got my dad to set up the meeting. Friday of the following week, I was called to the office when my father was there to meet with one of the assistant principals. When I arrived at the meeting, I remember being bombarded with questions about my future and my plans. The assistant principal belittled my plans and told my father that she “personally” (her word) and the school were totally against my graduating early. She even said that it was “a stupid idea” (her words). However, my father told her he would respect my decision to finish a year early.
The assistant principal then turned to the computer to go over my schedule. She immediately saw that I was in a regular advanced math class. Now keep in mind that the May before this current school year, I chose to opt out of the IB math class and take my last final math as a regular class. Once she saw that I had a regular math class, she told me she would not allow me to graduate early unless I took the pre-calculus/calculus IB class – a full year class. My father questioned why she wanted to do this since it was neither needed nor desired. She told him that if I am planning on going to college early, colleges would want to see the IB math on my senior schedule. My father then said that we were already three weeks into the school year and asked did she think I could understand the class even though the class was already started. That’s when she looked at my Algebra II grade and said if I could receive an “A” in Algebra II, then I could pass the IB examination in calculus “with flying colors” (her words).
She was trying to rearrange my schedule to maximize the number of IB tests I would take. Normally, juniors would only take two IB tests because that’s all they’re allowed to take. But since I am now considered a senior, there is no limit to the number of IB tests I could take. She rearranged my schedule so that I could take three IB tests. I did not want to take three IB tests, but she insisted it was in my best interest. I do not believe her because I know many students get accepted into college without IB or without honors, for that matter.
Even though I did not need the extra hard class, IB calculus, to graduate, I was forced to be put into it as a condition of early graduation. It was clear that the assistant principal reluctantly agreed. I can’t remember the exact words she told my dad, but she was trying to make him feel like a bad father for letting me graduate early. The meeting concluded with my being back into a full IB schedule with extra unneeded classes, which, of course, made my blood boil. And to be quite frank, I was confused on why it was such a big deal for me to delay graduating if I had all the required classes. Still, I was just happy to know I would be graduating this year.
It wasn’t until later this year, in October, that I realized why the school made early graduation such a fuss. In October, IB students were called out of class about our registration for the IB examinations for the following spring. While in the meeting, I remember the IB coordinator– a teacher at our school– talking about how since our school offers the IB courses, “we steal kids from other schools in the district” (her words). She then went on about how the other schools in the district were not very happy that our school was doing this because our school receives more money, “$10,000 per head” (her words). I remember looking around at other classmates’ faces sensing the confusion on why our school portrayed itself as so broke if each of us individually were worth ten grand.
That’s when it hit me: The school is more worried about getting money from this IB program than being concerned for the actual welfare of the student. The IB coordinator spoke more on how our school’s letter grade had gone up because of it. I then thought of how the school gave me and the other few students graduating early a hard time with our parents and schedules. It all makes sense now: The school doesn’t want us to leave because we (the other IB students and I) are what’s holding its school grade and funding together.
You see, it’s not just about the welfare of the student anymore. It’s more about what the student can offer the school, not what’s the school can offer the student. “Smart” kids are seen as assets to funding. We thought we as students had a choice in what happens with our education and could choose to leave the IB program if we wanted. But once you’re in, you’re in. The school system is using academically advanced youth like me to manipulate the school’s letter grade. So, when someone like me tries to leave by going off to college early, it could affect their funding. And since IB students’ intelligence goes with us, the school’s End of Course test scores, IB examinations, and cumulative school GPA could possibly suffer from our absence.
Before I put it all together, I didn’t really understand why the school was making it so difficult for me to do as I wished. I am happy to say that I will be graduating this year as a junior; but I hope that no one else will have to go through what I had to endure to get what I so rightfully deserved. I mean, after all, isn’t graduating early something a school should feel sense of accomplishment for and not frown upon?
So long as schools and districts are graded using letter grades, high test scores will be at a premium; schools within districts will turn on one another, and the students who can deliver those high test scores along with their parents will be targets for exploitation.
School letter grades are the lynchpin of test-centric education reform.
It is time to remove the pin.