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THE $14 BILLION QUESTION: New Report to California Lawmakers Offers a Strategic Approach to Improving State’s High Schools

Issued on the heels of a conference that showed high school dropouts cost California $14 billion annually in crime, jail time, and lost wages, a new report to state lawmakers lays out a road map for how California can improve its high schools. (More information on the conference by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University is available here). The report, Improving High School: A Strategic Approach, issued by the state’s independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, suggests the state increase the importance of dropout and graduation data in state and federal accountability formulas. It also said the state should make high schools accountable for improving student transitions to college and work, and make high schools more flexible in helping students achieve their personal goals after graduation.

The report’s most controversial recommendation urged state lawmakers to “reset” the state’s standard for proficiency under No Child Left Behind. It said that keeping the proficiency standard high has the practical effect of reducing a school’s incentives to help potential dropouts stay in school, because teachers are forced to focus on students just below the bar. State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who praised the overall report, said a lower standard for proficiency would water down the state’s world-class standards, and disagreed with the recommendation.

The report categorized California’s students into three basis groups based on their high school outcomes: dropouts; “general track” students; and “university track” students. Approximately 30 percent of California’s entering ninth-grade class will drop out before attaining a diploma. Similar to elsewhere in the country, large urban school districts in the state have dropout rates that exceed 50 percent. Also, African-American and Hispanic students were more likely to drop out than most other racial and ethnic groups, according to the report.

In examining the reasons that students drop out, the report notes that most factors are in place by the time students enter ninth grade. Results from the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) English Language Arts test showed that about one-third of all eighth graders score “below basic.” Of that group, approximately 12 percent-roughly sixty thousand students-scored “far below basic,” a level equivalent to randomly guessing at the answers to test questions.

Because of a lack of good data on high school dropouts, the report stated, the state’s efforts to hold schools and districts accountable for addressing this problem are ineffective. The report recommended that the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), which assigns each student a unique identifier, be used when it becomes available in 2006 to calculate graduation and dropout rates for high schools and districts.

The second group, “general track” students, represents about 45 percent of the California student population. These students graduate from high school but do not have the number of course credits to qualify for admission to a public university in California. Among this group, postsecondary aspirations far exceed readiness for college-while 70 percent plan to go to a four-year university or community college, only about half actually enroll. Because they do not have clear postgraduation goals, it is difficult for them to use high school effectively to make a smooth transition to adult life. In an effort to smooth these transitions and provide more information to parents and students about post-high school options for work and school, the report recommended intensive career counseling and planning in the eighth and tenth grades.

Under the plan, students in the eighth grade would develop a high school course plan in consultation with parents that would identify the specific courses the student would need to take to reach his or her academic and vocational goals. Two years later, the student would have a “check-in” counseling session that would assess his or her progress and make any changes to the plan that the student or parents wanted. The report notes that an expansion of the high school planning process would benefit all high school students, not just those on a general track.

Students in the “university track,” the third group, make up 25 percent of high schoolers and represent those who graduate with the courses needed to establish eligibility for admission to the state’s four-year universities. However, even though these students often graduate near the top of their class, they frequently lack the English or mathematics skills required for study at the university level.

In the University of California system, which typically accepts high-achieving students, 30 percent needed remedial instruction in reading and writing. Meanwhile, almost half of California State University system freshmen needed remedial coursework in English (and about 35 percent in mathematics). For community college students, more than 40 percent of entering freshmen needed to retake at least one basic skills course. State-required placement tests show that recent high school graduates enrolling in community colleges need to repeat high school courses in basic English reading and writing (at least two levels below the transfer freshman composition course) and mathematics (below algebra I).

Because each school system sets its own standards, these numbers are not comparable, but the problem is easy to see. High schools are not preparing their graduates for college-level work. At the same time, research suggests that students who are required to take remedial coursework are less likely to stay in college beyond the freshman year, much less complete their studies.

In an effort to strengthen the connection between college admission policies and the objective measures of what students actually learn in high school, the report recommended that the state use the STAR tests for admission and placement decisions in the postsecondary system. In addition to offering a ready-made set of standards-aligned examinations in history, science, English, and mathematics, the STAR results could also create stronger incentives for learning and provide early signals about student achievement. As early as in the ninth and tenth grades, students could use their STAR results to determine whether they are performing at levels consistent with the university admission standards.

According to the report, students need and want better and more choices in high school-and schools need to be more flexible in providing these choices. In noting that only about 15 percent of high school graduates earn college diplomas, the report said that students need other viable alternatives. It said that students want to feel more involved in their education, and creating choices over their high school program empowers them and their parents to use high school to reach their postsecondary goals.

The complete report is available at http://www.lao.ca.gov/PubDetails.aspx?id=1322.

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