FCAT + AYP = One Impossible Yardstick

High schools are in an uneasy place right now. Everyone is feeling the pain inflicted by new standards and the knowledge that no matter what is achieved, the goal will soon be moved.

This year, for the first time, the FCAT shares equal weight with Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in determining individual high school ratings. AYP measures the students in a school by 39 different criteria. If a school does not make its pre-determined percentage of AYP for the year in any of the 39 criteria, it fails to make AYP. As of this writing, no district in the state has achieved AYP. The percentages will be increased every year and soon all schools will be required to make 100% AYP in each of the 39 criteria. No room for the Bell Curve, just one flat line.

Your "A" school will be immediately subject to sanctions and a possible further loss of funding. Principals will be faced with working day and night, in the shadow of a looming $2.6 billion budget shortfall, to bring underperforming subgroups in the 39 criteria up to AYP. None of this remediation is budgeted. There is no money provided to pull this off. After this year, Florida's graduation rate will be defined strictly as only those students who get a standard or honors 4-year diploma after spending the required time in high school and meeting all of the performance benchmarks. No one else is counted in this figure. The pressure on teachers, students and administrators is enormous.

So, what about drop outs? Let's be clear: The state currently classifies "Drop outs" as those kids who simply stop going to school and have no other plan to finish their education. That number is usually low. What that number doesn't reflect is that the way a school system loses a student often isn't a clear-cut declaration that he or she is simply leaving school. Most kids leave after taking a meandering path through some of the available options, failing to engage and giving up. They're not really drop outs but they're certainly not graduates. This percentage of kids is large and growing and represents the gap between those who get their 4 year degree and those who truly drop out. If Florida has a 57% graduation rate, than this group represents the remaining 40% of the student population. This group is at the root of the differences noted by the Education Week surveys and our own Florida Department of Education numbers.

This year, the Florida Legislature passed HB61, which represents the strictest enforcement of the Sunshine State Standards. There is no money allocated for the "remediation" frequently required in the bill. Increasing standards is important. Legislators need to know that simply moving the goal doesn't mean that the kids will make it. By making everything so "standards-driven" we are at risk of sending even more of those kids who are fragile and frustrated away altogether. Many may become convinced that they can't measure up to the new standards and decide to leave altogether.

We have to decide as an electorate what is important here. Every kid doesn't fit into a perfect circle. All of these rigid standards create a long flat line that deems success or failure. What happened to the bell curve of life? Clearly, every child is not going to college. That fact shouldn't break any child's spirit or kill their desire to learn. We have no plan for high-level prestigious alternatives like the Technical Academies found in Singapore where kids are expected to do well in the core curriculum, but can opt into programs that develop their talents. There is absolutely no investment in this sort of option here. This is yet another example of economic loss to our state. (See link below)

Raising standards is important. But raising standards in the absence of proper funding for implementation, clear thinking about whether these changes will really allow our kids to be compete globally and ensuring that the whole exercise isn't just an exhausting and expensive dance of "move the goal" is equally important. At the end of the day, all of these hoops better result in globally competitive curriculums, satisfied teachers and successful students. If they don't, this is just another abusive round of chemotherapy for a very sick patient.

Further Discussion:

What is Florida's Graduation Rate?

While the Florida State Department of Education claims 71% graduation rate, it's also counting students who pass just the GED. This is where Florida and the No Child Left Behind Act differ. The GED is not considered an equivalent to a high school diploma by many education experts and the federal formula doesn't count them.

Back in 2002, the Manhattan Institute released a study stating that, "just over half of Florida's public school students earned a diploma in four years, giving the state the lowest graduation rate in the country." Florida's graduation rate in 2006, according to the latest Diplomas Count Study from Education Week, was 57%, fifth lowest in the nation. In fact, according to this study, going back to 1995, Florida has never been above a 60% graduation rate.

Types of Diplomas available in Florida

Standard Diploma: Awarded to students who meet all requirements of graduation during the recognized 4-year high school enrollment time frame

Honors Diploma: Must Meet the requirements for standard diploma and have a 4.0 GPA OR meet the requirements for a standard diploma, obtain a score of 25 on the ACT or 1120 on the SAT, and have a 3.0 weighted GPA

Certificate of Completion: Awarded to students who earn required credits, but are unable to meet the 2.0 GPA requirements or pass the FCAT

Special Diploma: Awarded to students who meet the standards established by the Florida Department for Exceptional Student Education. They will be awarded the diploma according to the requirements of their specific exceptional education program.

State of Florida High School Equivalency Diploma (formerly GED Exit Option): In most districts, students who struggle with school and the FCAT can be identified by their teachers and counselors for this diploma. This is not a standard GED. It is an opportunity for students to accelerate the remedial process in order to meet grade level standards and pass FCAT Math and Reading and earn a State of Florida High School Equivalency Diploma.

State of Florida High School Equivalency Diploma/GED Exit Option

For thousands of students, this option is their only real chance to earn a high school diploma. Each district has a dropout prevention specialist whose job it is to ensure that at risk kids stay engaged in school and earn their diplomas. The risk of these students dropping out is very high and the state should never lose an opportunity to redirect students back into the education system. So, while these students may not finish their high school requirements within 4 years, they are taking and passing the FCAT, taking and passing the CORE requirements and in effect finishing school. A huge achievement for many that allows them to go to start college at a 2-year school.

Should students who only receive a Standard GED be counted as high school graduates?

By definition, GED recipients have dropped out of school; the system has failed them in some way, and schools should not receive "credit" as if they had succeeded in educating and graduating these students. For these reasons, GED recipients are not counted under the No Child Left Behind Act, nor are they counted as graduates in most of the modern methods that calculate high school graduation rates. Source: Meeting the Graduation Challenge: Handbook for Communities, Johns Hopkins University.

It should be noted that the Race To The Top Grant requires that states get rid of programs that dumb down standards and assessments. The movement is toward uniform standards across all states. Meanwhile, much of the evidence regarding dropouts points to the importance of getting GED recipients and disconnected youth to reenter the education pathway. In order to go to college, GED recipients must attend a two-year community college first and if they qualify, can go to a 4 year university after that.

Additional Reading:

Amazing video on Singapore

Link to Education Week article regarding Technical Academies in Singapore

NOTE: This is the final installment of a series of three alerts that examine Florida's Drop out crisis.

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