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What Happens When There's No Public School Choice?

Jan 4, 2008
I marveled at the size of Trenton Central High School when I toured the facility on a public tour.

It is 380,000 square feet; to put that in perspective, imagine three anchor stores in a suburban shopping center stacked one atop the other. Trenton Central High is the seventh most populous secondary school in the Garden State. With nearly 2,800 students, it has the fourth largest enrollment among urban high schools; among New Jersey's high schools, only Elizabeth High, Dickinson High (Jersey City) and Eastside (Paterson) enroll more students.

The 75 year-old building has character, as well as a theatre that might have been envied on Broadway half a century ago and a swimming pool that was probably state of the art in its day, but there are the problems that you might expect to find in a structure that's lasted so long.

The problems do not stop there; the building is just the tip of the iceberg for this troubled school.

The Trenton public school system is "in need of improvement" district-wide under No Child Left Behind, and has entered the later years where the school board and administrators must consider options for restructuring elementary, middle school and secondary education. Trenton Central High School has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under this federal act for the past five years. The Daylight-Twilight High School, also a Trenton public school, is in similar straits.

Under No Child Left Behind, AYP is based on scores from standardized mathematics and English-language arts examinations. In New Jersey, the bar, or pass rate, is raised each year, with a goal towards 100% proficiency, regardless of race, special education or economic circumstances.

When a school fails to meet AYP, No Child Left Behind implies several possible remedies: restructure the school, change the management, privatize the school or convert it into a charter school. Parents must also be offered the option to transfer their children to another public school within the same district that has made AYP, or to arrange for tutoring for their children at the district's expense.

That leads me to one major concern: what happens when students and their parents have no options - because their local public high school is the only one in town, or they have none that consistently met AYP?

I do not have to look far beyond the Trenton suburbs to find communities in a similar predicament. Three communities that surround Trenton: Ewing, Hamilton and Lawrence Township face the same dilemma. I am not na´ve enough to believe this problem is unique to New Jersey.

The problem is not as much with the schools as it is with No Child Left Behind - the act uses proficiency as the basis for public policy.

The measurement of the success or failure of any high school cannot solely be based on student performance on high stakes standardized tests. High school students are not the same; they have different ambitions, they do not take the same classes, and they have the option of leaving school after they turn 16.

Proficiency can be one performance measure for a high school, but it cannot be the be-all, end-all, for-all. Moreover, No Child Left Behind offers no incentives for a school to perform better, only threats of embarrassment; the annual list of schools that fail to make AYP merely angers residents and parents, and it only validates that perception of a bad school is reality.

A better policy would recognize and reward students who have become more than proficient, and acknowledge a high school's accomplishments on a broader set of measures that use the tests that their students already take, such as:

* SAT scores: Since people continually mock the intelligence of college football players, why not use their entrance standards as a baseline to find out how many students qualified for college admissions? The NCAA Clearinghouse guidelines for student-athletes could be converted into a performance matrix of grade point averages and test scores. The Clearinghouse guidelines are not only quantifiable; they are also more stringent, as more than 750 four year colleges do not even require the SAT for admissions. High scores and high grades would be assigned the highest point value, low scores and low grades would obviously be rated lower. Such a matrix might give principals and school board members a sense of the students they are sending on to college.

* The Armed Force Qualification Test (AFQT) within the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) scores for students who choose military service: according to Military's website, the AFQT is a test of arithmetic reasoning, math knowledge, word knowledge and paragraph comprehension. That sounds much like a standardized test. Since schools are required to supply student information to the military under No Child Left Behind, the armed services should have no problem sharing the pass/fail rates of the students who take their test.

* Pass rates on licensing examinations, if the school offers pre-professional or vocational training. This is obvious, as the goal of the training programs is to help students pass.

* Proficiency/advanced proficiency on state-required high school examinations such as New Jersey's High School Proficiency Assessment or New York State's Regents Examinations.

I would add two other measures to the list: the reduction in the dropout rate and a redefined graduation rate. Beyond age 16, the definition of grade level takes on different meaning depending on the high school.

While well-to-do school districts are likely to have a very high three or four-year graduation rate, others that serve economically disadvantaged students will have students who must juggle school, work and family responsibilities. They are less likely to graduate "on-time," but it is completely wrong to label them failures when they are dealing with their own reality.

The important thing is that high school principals should have access to the graduation rates for each freshman and transfer class that enters their school, just as college admissions officers do. They should also know why students leave and whether they graduated from another school after they left.

These measures, when combined in some index, would do more than indicate whether a high school is "good" or "bad;" they would show the direction that their students were headed -- and if they did, or did not succeed. If the school is the only game in town, then educators may use this information for curriculum development, or work out agreements that offer their students real choices, even if they must transfer to another school.

I doubt that there would be any argument between educators, parents and politicians that the SAT's or professional and vocational test batteries are already high stakes tests for high school students.

We need to know what our high school students want to do, whether it is college, employment, military service or family responsibilities, and help them get there. We do not need more standardized tests to give high schools pass-fail grades; their students already take enough of them to get ahead in their lives.
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, Educated Quest.
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