Time for High Schoolers to Put on Their Big College Pants

“Who was absent yesterday and needs the handout?” is not a question a teacher of high school seniors should pose.   In less than one year, how will these students function on their own, choosing courses, purchasing books, transporting themselves to college?

We baby students.  Too much.  Too often.

Chancellor Timothy P. White of the California State University (CSU) system made the right call earlier this month proclaiming that starting in the fall of 2018, incoming freshmen will no longer be given placement tests in English or math, nor will those who struggle be enrolled in remedial classes.

The decision is based primarily on the length it takes a CSU student to complete a degree, and the extra money students have to expend by remaining enrolled beyond the traditional four years.

Currently, over one-third of freshmen are enrolled in these classes; CSU’s four-year graduation rate stands at 19 percent.

Between now and then, each campus will figure out a plan on how to ensure that these students will succeed through other means.

The larger problem that no one wishes to address is that these recent high school graduates are not ready for college.

Several of them are suspended on a rickety bridge between 12th grade and freshman year resembling an Indiana Jones cliffhanger:  who will make it to college and who will not.

Those of us who work at the high school level need to look in the mirror and question our methods and expectations.

Much teacher training is spent on how to scaffold and differentiate lessons, breaking down hard concepts into smaller chunks which eventually handicaps the lower ability students and frustrates the higher ability ones.

Some of this work fits earlier grades.   However, come high school, more should be asked of students.

Each grade from kindergarten through 12th should purposefully be organized to ensure with each passing year, teachers hold the students’ hands less while the students gain more control of their learning.  That way, by the time students cross the stage and hoist up the diplomas, there is true meaning behind that accomplishment.

An integral aspect of attending college is being mature enough to handle the extended freedom and independence.

Schools get the concept of “college prep” wrong.   While applying the phrase to upper grade coursework, college prep actually begins in kindergarten not high school.   Every grade, every class should prepare students to further their education beyond 12th grade, be it college or learning a trade.

High school seniors should not still be working on how to write an effective paragraph.   These kids will fail in their first quarter of college.

This past summer school, one Glendale administrator urged teachers not to fail students.  Having failed classes during the regular school year, these students were given an opportunity to retake them by only being taught 60 percent of the curriculum.  Yet some still couldn’t pass the class.

Administrators and teachers who wipe clean the ‘F’ are not doing these students a favor for maybe the only real lesson that student will have learned in summer school is that a person needs to work at something in order to receive credit.

If that lesson is not learned at the high school level, then a four-year college is not the right option for that individual.

President Harry S. Truman had a famous sign on his desk while in the White House:  the buck stops here.

Those of us in public school need to adhere to standards; passing along students who do little to no work or show little to no grasp of subject matter is real failure.


More Like High School Completion Than Graduation

“Graduation rate at Glendale’s high schools tops 90%” read the Glendale News-Press headline recently.  On the surface, this statistic is celebratory, something Glendale Unified should prominently display at the top of its website’s homepage.

Before we pat each other on the back for a job well done, keep this in mind:  many high school graduates are not ready to start college or get a job.

For too many, a high school diploma only confirms that an individual met minimum standards.

If the purpose of a high school graduation is to give a thumbs up for job accomplished, i.e., you attended school kindergarten through 12th grade, then we should call it “completion” rather than “graduation” because disturbing trends lurk beyond high school.

There is a high remediation rate in colleges.  Some surveys say 20 percent of those attending 4-year colleges and 60 percent attending community colleges take at least one remedial class, meaning that whatever knowledge and know-how students were to absorb and practice through their high school career is not evident.

Such retraining often continues when college graduates enter the workforce.  According to Washington Post reporter Jeffrey J. Selingo, employers say that young people lack “problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks,” skills needed to excel on the job.

Somewhere in the education pipeline, especially in high school and college, young people are just getting by with underdeveloped abilities that delay future success.

Much of the hype surrounding the Common Core standards is that its higher expectations on what skills teachers should be teaching at certain grade levels will produce a higher caliber of student.  In reaching for an elevated learning level, we should see a drop in graduation rates due to students struggling with the more rigorous work.  So what accounts for the rise?

A push to ensure that every last senior crosses that stage at the end of the year.  No district official or principal wants a less than stellar grad rate for it darkens the reputation of a school.

At the high school level, there is pressure on teachers to pass students (a grade of ‘D’ or higher).

Some administrators contact teachers who have too many students with failing grades.  In other words, the teachers are questioned why they are failing the kids rather than the kids being questioned why they are failing the classes.

Then there is the wide variation among educators on how they evaluate student work and calculate grades.

Teachers are permitted, rightfully so, to determine their own amount of work to assign, and what percentage of a class grade is based on participation, homework, and tests.

But when some ingratiate themselves with their pupils by grading easy, the result is that an ‘A’ in one teacher’s class does not signify the same level of achievement as an ‘A’ in another.

Years ago when California developed the High School Exit Exam its original intent was to make a diploma not attainable but meritorious.  It didn’t work.   Soon after piloting the test, results showed more than half the students not passing it.  So, the test was whittled down to the point that it would merely rubber stamp the diploma not elevate it, adding a bureaucratic hoop for students to jump through, wasting millions of tax dollars and hours of classroom time.

School should not be the place where kids survive but where they thrive.

All of us—educators, parents, children—need to accept the challenge and work towards meeting higher expectations so that more young people finish college and perform well on the job.

Maybe if students knew that there was a realistic chance they may not cross the graduation stage, more effort would result so that the diploma would not simply be a piece of paper.



This year’s 10th graders have reason to celebrate since they no longer have to take the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE).

Last October Gov. Brown signed into law SB 172 suspending the test for three years through the 2017-18 school year.

Since 2004, the CAHSEE was administered to the state’s sophomores to test their ability in math, English, and writing.

Former Glendale superintendent Jim Brown served on the original committee whose intent was to develop a rigorous enough test to certify that a high school diploma meant something. If a student did not pass either portion of the test, he did not graduate.

However, when the test was piloted, it was discovered that half of all students could not pass the test.

Since schools could not have survived the public relations nightmare of a 50% graduation rate, CAHSEE was redesigned, or dummied-down, testing 8th grade level math and 10th grade level English to represent 12th grade competency.   The original two essays were downsized to a single piece of writing.

The writing prompts demanded little on the part of students, asking them to discuss a place they would like to visit or a toy from their childhood. And with such competency they are ready for college?

Even with a passing threshold of 55 percent in math and 60 percent in English, plus a host of free intervention classes and one-on-one tutoring, along with multiple chances to pass the darn thing, one out of every ten California seniors still did not pass it.

For those reasons, I never knew a single student who proudly proclaimed, “I passed the CAHSEE!”

State Sen. Carol Liu of La Canada Flintridge who sponsored SB 172 told me that she agrees “passing the exit exam in and of itself [did] not ensure students [had] mastered grade 12 standards.”

Think about the tens of millions of dollars and dozens of school days wasted on this endeavor. The biggest impact CAHSEE made in the past decade was enriching testing companies.

Besides suspending the test, the measure that went into effect the first of this year allows the 32,000 students who never passed the CAHSEE to now receive their diplomas. In other words, all the students who ever took the exit exam have officially “passed it” making the rationale behind it in the first place a very expensive joke, a high-priced feel good award akin to all kids on a sports team earning trophies regardless of merit.

Unfortunately, CAHSEE may return in a different form in the future.

One foreboding element of the law stipulates that “the Superintendent of Public Instruction convene an advisory panel to provide recommendations . . . on the continuation of the high school exit examination and on alternative pathways to satisfy the high school graduation requirements” as worded on the California Department of Education website.

Sen. Liu believes that future students could be looking at “multiple measures, such as an exit exam, coursework, and a project-based assignment” to prove they have earned a diploma.

Um, whatever happened to using a student’s course grades in determining achievement as colleges do? No college was ever interested if a student passed the CAHSEE or not.

The costly lesson of politician-produced initiatives such as CAHSEE and NCLB (which officially ended last month) is that elected officials need to stop thinking of themselves as experts on how to improve education.


Free Community College Tuition is Not the Answer

What does $1,400 buy nowadays? One year of cell phone service with T-Mobile, one year of television with DirecTV, or one year’s tuition at a California community college—for 60% of students, that is. The other 40% pay no tuition.

Which is why the chorus of support for free community college tuition as proposed by President Obama in last month’s State of the Union address makes one pause.

It is one of those proposals that on the face of it sounds opposition-proof, a people-pleasing idea that would affect many: four out of every ten students attend a community college. The percentage is higher among Glendale students. But the President’s plan is for something that is not really needed.

Community college tuition is not the number one obstacle for most students. States with much higher tuition than California’s actually have higher completion rates.

Sure, some students have to work to pay for living expenses and are unable to attend college full-time, precluding them from finishing their college studies.

However, many attending community college are not stellar students.

Community colleges used to be the domain of those students whose income would not allow entrance to a state university campus.   After attending a junior college for two years, they would transfer to a 4-year institution to finish their degree.

Today, barely ten percent of community college students finish a bachelor’s degree within six years based on a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. They struggled in high school and now need remedial coursework. Their past academic record of poor grades and easy classes did not meet the prerequisites of the state university system.

The solution isn’t to keep pushing these unprepared people into college. A kid who doesn’t fit the mold of a successful student—good grades, sits and listens attentively, does homework—doesn’t suddenly succeed by continuing assembly line-like in that traditional, passive environment.

Recall the old days when high schools provided viable vocational education alternatives for students skilled in other ways than book learning?

True, a person earns more money with a college degree than without one. However, not all jobs require them.

So having the federal government pay 75% and states the remaining 25% of the annual $6 billion needed to fund Obama’s project is not a smart investment.

The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) goes beyond paying for tuition, providing textbooks, subway passes, and closely monitored individualized counseling.

No wonder that the ASAP has worked so far, with the disadvantaged students’ graduation rate nearly doubling, but costing 63% more than students not in the program, as reported by the nonprofit group MDRC.

Free tuition may help out a bit, but there is no funding in the President’s plan for the support services that have made ASAP successful.   If there were, the allocation would rise astronomically.

At the very least, any tuition-free proposal should ask something of its recipients. How about having students perform community service projects during their high school career in exchange for tuition? Tuition-free should not mean responsibility-free.

There is nothing wrong by having individuals make sacrifices in order to achieve goals. That is what makes attaining the goal so worthwhile. Giving people money doesn’t solve their problems. Just look at the lives of lotto winners.

Focus should be on rethinking the role of high school that still accelerates the notion that all must attend college. Of course, that is a much more complex problem to solve than simply providing people free tuition.

Not Ready for College

The phrase “achievement gap” is often referred to the test score discrepancies between white students and non-white students in public schools.   However, the more alarming achievement gap is between high school work and college work.

Plenty of students excel at the high school level, enrolling in advanced placement classes, and maintaining 4.0 GPAs.   Yet something happens when they go to a four-year university where nearly one-third of college freshmen end up taking remedial English and math classes.

Look at the condition of entering freshmen at all levels of colleges in California, as reported by the state’s Legislative Office of Higher Education.

Community Colleges. About 70% were not ready for college-level English in 2009; 85% were not ready for college-level math.

State Universities. In 2009, 58% were “unprepared for college-level writing or math,” with the unprepared rate at an astonishing 90% of those attending CSU Los Angeles and CSU Dominguez Hills.

University of California. Over 25% of freshmen were unprepared in 2010.

The cost of re-educating those college students is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The other problem with college students taking remedial classes is that the courses are not worth any credits meaning that it will take those struggling students longer to complete college.   Often the students who did poorly in the classes in high school continue to do poorly in those at college, even when the courses are offered online (where there is an even higher failure rate).

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s data shows that in California, almost 35% of college freshmen finish their degree in four years, 65% do so in six years.   No one is quite sure of what happens to the other one-third.

Clearly the concept of attending college and exiting with a bachelor’s degree in four years is no longer the norm.

There is plenty of finger pointing to go around. Professors accuse high school teachers of grade inflation, while high school teachers accuse professors of not making material comprehensible so more students can understand it.

Los Angeles Times reporter Kurt Streeter wrote an excellent article in August, “South L.A. student finds a different world at Cal,” about a young man from Los Angeles who struggled in his first year at Berkeley even though the student excelled in high school.   His 4.06 GPA, second highest in his high school class, sunk to a 1.7 GPA in his college freshman year.

These students are faced with assignments untried at the high school level.   For example, professors commonly assign 15-page research papers while high school teachers assign 2-3 page papers, often without any research required. No wonder there is often a disconnect between high school success and college readiness.

Back in the 1990s I was a part of a consortium of high school and community college instructors whose charge was to use career oriented curriculum as a way to reduce the “readiness gap.” Such an endeavor, usually nicknamed K-16 for grades kindergarten through bachelor’s degree, lasted as long as other well-meaning efforts—until the grant money ran out.

There needs to be a joint effort, a once a year “state of the schools” conference where leading teachers and professors meet to compare notes and strategize how best to help students so that crossing the stage at one’s high school graduation is not the only bridge they cross in furthering their education.