A Call for Better Prepared High School Graduates: Cases Louisiana and Kentucky

In an op-ed that appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune
today, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, John White, challenged
Louisiana’s education system to do a better job of preparing the state’s high
school graduates for college and careers. White, while acknowledging Louisiana’s
success with increasing high school graduation rates, asserted that changes in
the Louisiana, national, and global economies require that students pursue some
form post-secondary education and/or training to be competitive for jobs and
make a wage sufficient for supporting a family. White referenced less-than-desirable
statistics for Louisiana students with earning college degrees; reporting that “of
100 high school students in our state, on average only 19 end up graduating
from a university six years after leaving high school.” White asserted, “when we
award a high school diploma, it should mean that the student is prepared to
succeed in college or in the workplace, no questions asked.” And he is
absolutely right.

In Kentucky as well, we must continue with increasing the
number of young Kentuckians who graduate from high school. According to the
Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), Kentucky had a 2012 Average Freshman
Graduation Rate (AFGR) of 78.8%, up 3.8 percentage points from 2008 when the
AFGR was 75%. Shameful achievement gaps remain in Kentucky with graduation rates. African American students in 2012 had an AFGR of 72.1%; up 5.3
percentage points from 2008 (66.8%), but 7.9 percentage points lower than the
AFGR of White students in Kentucky in 2012 (80.0%). These shameful gaps must be eliminated. Achievement gaps are an ugly stain on the education system of our state.

But just as Superintendent White called for better
preparation of high school graduates in Louisiana, we must ensure that a high
school diploma in Kentucky consistently means something. Currently, I don’t
believe we can say with any confidence that every student earning a Kentucky high school
diploma—whether in Paducah or in Maysville—is well-prepared for
college and/or career. I believe some students leave Kentucky high schools as
prepared as any student in the U.S. Other students, unfortunately, leave
Kentucky high schools with the same diploma, but without the preparation
necessary for success in college or career. It is time to start talking
seriously about quality control in Kentucky. What does it mean to have a high diploma
from a Kentucky high school? What should postsecondary institutions and
employers be able to reasonably expect from any graduate of a Kentucky high school?

Kentucky’s new end-of-course (EOC) assessment program is a
significant step in that direction, but much more must be done. Currently,
Kentucky only has EOC assessments for English II, Algebra II, Biology, and
History; and in most schools EOCs account for no more than 20% of a student’s
final course grade. So theoretically, a student could show little to no mastery
of course content on the EOC and still pass the course with a pretty good
grade. This would not be so problematic if students’ grades were in fact
usually based on their mastery of course content, but grades typically include
all sorts of additional things like effort, enthusiasm, attendance,
citizenship, etc.

There is no way around it, testing must be an integral part of establishing
common expectations for high school graduates across the state, but we should not rely solely on
testing for quality control. There must be a norming of academic expectations
both within and across Kentucky school districts. What Ms. Smith expects of a
student to pass her Algebra II course in Woodford County should be very similar
to the expectations Mr. Jones has of his Algebra II students in Wolfe County.
After all, students in Woodford County get the same diploma as students in
Wolfe County; and these schools’ graduates will apply for the same jobs and for seats in the same
post-secondary institutions.

In summary, just as in Louisiana, there is much work to be
done in Kentucky. We must continue to make progress with improving the
graduation rates for students in our state. We must eliminate the shameful
achievement gaps that remain between students of color and White students in
Kentucky. And we must begin to work on quality control for Kentucky high school
graduates; ensuring that when a student leaves a Kentucky high school with a diploma,
that diploma means that the student has been prepared for success in college
and/or career. That is our charge. I believe we are up for the task. Let’s get
it done Kentucky!

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