In this article at Edutopia, Fran Smith describes the growing popularity of the International Baccalaureate program, which allows high school students to earn college credit by taking rigorous courses in high school.
The program is catching on because of its prestige and because it has significant effects on student achievement – even for students who haven’t done particularly stellar work previously. South Side High School in New York state now attempts to reach all students with IB classes:
Of the 265 graduates in South Side’s class of 2006, 124 — nearly half — were IB diploma candidates. The statistics have made the school a poster child for IB inclusion, but [principal] Burris and [IB coordinator] Murphy are determined to get more kids — all kids — to reach for the educational gold.
The article leads with an intriguing set of questions: “Is IB the best way to improve the nation’s schools, as supporters claim? Or is it an elitist fad at best — and perhaps anathema to American values, as some critics contend?” However, it doesn’t delve into the controversies so much as describe the benefits of the program.
The very availability of IB (or their more common sibling, Advanced Placement) classes calls into question our basic values. Do we want to offer a tiered education system, in which some students are challenged with world-class instruction, while others languish in “business math” and “life skills”? Does this create a separate-and-unequal division within our high schools? Or is it right and necessary to offer different levels of challenge to meet the needs of different students, and different programs to help them meet their goals?
Relatively few voices advocate the wholesale dismantling of all advanced-track programs. However, more and more evidence is emerging that there is no valid or just reason to maintain entrance requirements for these classes. The IB coordinator at South Side says as much:
“Some people say that if the student hasn’t previously demonstrated what you envision as academic excellence, they don’t belong in the program,” Murphy says. “What we’ve found is the exact opposite. If you want academic excellence, put students in an academically excellent program. They’ll rise to the occasion.”
At any rate, IB and AP are picking up speed as powerful ways to raise achievement and college acceptance rates.
An Educational Summit for Raising Standards and Closing Gaps: A Community Action Plan
To help African American students experience success in school districts and meet the challenges of the state graduation requirements, Seattle Alliance of Black School Educators in partnership with Seattle Public Schools, Pearson Scott Foreman, National Urban Publishing Companies, and other community organizations will host an Educational Summit on October 13 & 14, 2006 at Mercer Middle School in Seattle. [Read more...]
PDK has an article entitled “Rationing Education In an Era of Accountability” in this month’s edition, which discusses two dilemmas of high-stakes testing and accountability:
Dilemma 1: Data can be used to improve student achievement, but they can also be used to target some students at the expense of others.
Dilemma 2: It is unfair to hold schools accountable for new students or for subgroups that are too small to yield statistically reliable estimates of a school’s effectiveness; however, the consequence of excluding some students may be to deny them access to scarce educational resources.
Jennifer Booher-Jennings illustrates at length how a sharp focus on getting more students to meet standard leads schools to ignore both students who will certainly pass the test, and those who are very unlikely to pass. Instead, schools are focusing all of their energy on the “bubble kids,” students who are on the verge of passing. Because efforts directed at “bubble kids” have the highest payoff in pass rates, schools are ignoring the value in helping low-achieving students make progress as well as helping above-standard students strive for even greater heights. In many schools, Booher-Jennings says, students of color and students in special education don’t even have a chance to become “bubble kids,” because there aren’t enough of them to count for AYP.
There appears to be no accountability system for this type of discriminatory behavior. If schools raise their test scores, they are praised, with little inquiry into the side-effects of those score gains. In fact, high-achieving students could lose ground, and low-achieving students could learn nothing at all, and the school would still be praised for its gains as long as more bubble kids met standard.
Conversely, there is a third dilemma introduced if we focus on average scores instead of pass rates: Schools may choose to focus on further raising the achievement of high-achieving students, since taking a student from an 85 to a 95 may be easier than taking a student from a 25 to a 35. Susan Roberta Katz illutrates the consequences of this approach, popular before NCLB, in “Teaching in Tensions: Latino Immigrant Youth, Their Teachers, and the Structures of Schooling.”
What is missing from this discussion is ethics. What is the mission of the school, and how can it be pursued with integrity? How does a focus on test scores interfere with our ability to ethically and equitably serve all students? Why are administrators pressured to raise scores, regardless of how this pressure affects students?
Several districts have had initial success with integrating schools by socioeconomic status rather than race in order to eliminate the achievement gap.
Districts using this model distribute students so that no school has no more than 40% of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch:
As policymakers grapple with NCLB’s goal of reducing the achievement gap, they are coming to terms with the reality that no one knows how to make high-poverty schools work on a systemwide basis. Some school districts have concluded that rather than try to achieve the nearly impossible, they should take measures to ensure that all students have a chance to attend solidly middle-class public schools.
Educational Leadership – May 2006 | Volume 63 | Number 8 | Challenging the Status Quo | Pages 22-27