Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Scrap the HSPA and CCCS

Identifying factors that contribute to the horrible, and what I believe to be immoral inequities in our public education system can be exhausting. Blame can be spread around, from the culture of the schools to the quality of instruction to the guidance of parents to the quality of life in the communities to the policies of our political and educational leaders. Let’s not forget to include the business and non-profit communities as well. No one can truly escape scrutiny. The one factor I would like to address today is the role of the State, in particular the High School Proficiency Assessment and the Core Content Curriculum Standards.

To begin with, I think we need to acknowledge that there are actually two distinct types of school systems in the State: the urban and the suburban (we could add rural schools to the mix as well). I would argue that the difference between these type of districts is so profound, the performance chasm so great, that we literally need to have two distinct HSPAs. Personally, I think the HSPA is a fraud, a test completely detached from reality, and that we should take the opportunity to device a new assessment for graduation, using the urban schools as the “testing ground.”

Let’s first think about the rationale for the HSPA, which also asks us to question the rationale for high school. Has high school come to be seen as preparation for college, or preparation for life in a democratic, free market society? There is a difference. Are we testing what kids learned in high school, or are we testing what they should know in preparation for college. They are NOT the same thing.

Given that the HSPA does not test in areas other than math and language arts, it seems fair to conclude that the test is not designed to assess what kids should have been taught in high school; there is too much left out. My sense, both from experience as a teacher and as an observer of debate in academia and in the political arena, is that the test is geared towards college. But we already have the SAT and a host of achievement tests that college bound kids take in preparation for college. Given that a large percentage of students, especially those in the inner city, do not go on to college, it is important to see the HSPA solely as a test of the knowledge and skills acquired in high school. More to the point, the HSPA should assess how well prepared our high school graduates are for participation in American society. This would include an understanding of politics, economics, law, health and nutrition, culture, the environment, basic math, and financial literacy.

Unfortunately, the Core Content Curriculum Standards are so far off the mark in this respect as to be completely irrelevant. Let’s face it, the CCCS are written by smart people, academics in their particular field, and as such they are going to see much of their field as important to know. But these smart people need to think like the “average” person, the guy who may grow up to be a laborer, or a salesman, or a retail manager, not necessarily the guy that is going to college and perhaps graduate school. If a teacher actually teach all that they were required to teach under the CCCS, I would argue that most of what they taught was not learned. The science of learning simply does not comport with the enormous quantity of information required to be taught. It may be taught, but it is not learned, and it certainly is not remembered years after graduation.

Most adults forget most of what they learned in high school unless it is directly tied to their life and career choice, so it is important to at least try to limit requirements to those things that students will actually use in adult life.

 Given this, New Jersey’s CCCS should be very narrowly tailored, limited to those aforementioned topics. If our teachers, in collaboration with parents, do an effective job at creating perspicacious, intellectually curious students, then they will be equipped to pursue on their own any information they may want to explore in more detail. That detail should not be built into the CCCS.

Right now there is a movement for a national core curriculum, which New Jersey seems poised to adopt. That core curriculum is skill based rather than content based, and I definitely believe that we need to find a way to integrate that skill based core curriculum into our high school assessment. At the same time, we need to scrap and completely rewrite our core content standards and then redesign the HSPA to cover the national skills standards and content that draws from a broad segment of high school instruction, not just math and language arts.

Now let me get back to the inner city schools. Inner city students are failing to meet even minimal levels of competency in shockingly high numbers. If this were a discrimination case I would argue that the test is “guilty” of disparate treatment. There is no way that in the near future our inner city students will ever demonstrate the progress needed to make differences between urban and suburban schools indiscernible, and if you think about it shouldn’t that be the case?

I believe that we need to rethink the way we approach education in the State, and device a completely distinct “action plan” for our urban schools that includes a new core curriculum and a new HSPA. New Jersey is a “tale of two cities,” in the sense that the performance of these schools is nowhere near the performance of suburban schools. Because they are so different, they must be approached differently, and yes that may mean a different curriculum and a different HSPA. Nowhere am I arguing that it should be “easier,” just that it should be different.

Once we accept the reality that these differences exist, that these differences necessitate a different approach, and that the current CCCS and HSPA are inappropriate for our urban schools, we can move forward to create a culture of learning that prepares urban students for life beyond high school, regardless of whether they choose to enter the workforce, enroll in a trade school, go to college, or enter the military. Ironically, our educational leaders fail to see that urban school students actually have more choices than suburban students, who are pretty much told by their parents that they are going to college. Our suburban schools are “college prep factories,” or inner city schools are not. The graduation test should reflect that variety of directions by focusing on the one commonality shared by these students; they will need to understand our culture, participate in the political process, be civic minded, healthy, aware of their environment, and possess the legal, economic, and financial literacy needed to function independently as citizens. If the HSPA does not address this reality, then it fails to perform as a valid assessment and will continue to be the fraud that it is today.

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