Lead kids toward success and they’ll find it

  • By Steve Mullin
  • Saturday, September 3, 2005 9:00pm
  • Opinion

Ask parents what they want most for their children and you’ll get a near universal response: happiness. Financial independence or an adventurous spirit would be great, but at the end of everything, we want our children to live happy, fulfilling lives. One thing of which I’m quite sure: being trapped in a dead-end job while trying to meet the obligations of raising a family is not a recipe for happiness.

The education we received in the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s won’t cut it today. Our economy and job markets are global and fiercely competitive. The family wage jobs of the past have disappeared or require higher levels of basic skills and critical thinking than ever before.

Twelve years ago our state recognized that the bar for success after high school was rising. Many high school graduates didn’t have the reading, writing and math skills needed to enter work or postsecondary education. Receiving a diploma for those students was little more than a photo opportunity as they were destined for a life of low-skilled, low-wage jobs.

Washington responded with the 1993 Education Reform Act. The basic premise was that every student, not just those bound for college, would master fundamental skills before leaving high school.

The rubber is meeting the road. The Class of 2008 – the first required to meet standard on the WASL and earn a Certificate of Academic Achievement to graduate from high school – will take the 10th-grade exam for the first time next spring. Opponents of reform say they can’t do it, that it’s unfair to expect every student to demonstrate reading, writing and math skills before graduating from high school.

Unfair is giving students a diploma and leading them to believe a world of opportunities awaits when, in reality, they don’t have the skills needed to enter work or college. Instead of opportunities and options, these young people will be trapped and their quality of life will likely be lower than that of their parents.

Fair is ensuring every student is prepared for the world after high school.

The WASL reveals how students are doing at various stages throughout their K-12 education; exposing areas in which students struggle so they can get targeted assistance and identifying areas of strength so educators can align them with more challenging curriculum. It’s our insurance that every student receives a quality education and gets the skills they need.

Not only is education reform fair, it’s working.

We’ve seen gains in WASL scores every year, including the scores released just last week. The retake numbers are particularly encouraging. We’ll see similar, if not more dramatic, gains when the motivation of the graduation requirement kicks in. That’s what has happened in other states that maintained the political will to implement standards-based reform.

Take Massachusetts for example, a state much like Washington.

Since 2003, Massachusetts has required students to pass a state test in order to graduate. Their test is similar in rigor to Washington’s, though according to Achieve Inc. – a national, nonpartisan education research firm – our math and reading graduation standards aren’t as rigorous.

Since Massachusetts began administering its test, scores have risen steadily for all student groups, including minority students, those who are poor, who have disabilities and for whom English is not their native language. More students are meeting standard every year and a major jump in achievement came when the test become a requirement for graduation.

Forty-eight percent of the class of 2002 (the last class for whom the exam did not matter) passed the 10th-grade Massachusetts exam on their first try. By contrast, 68 percent of the class of 2003 (the first students who needed to pass in order to graduate) passed the first time. That’s a gain of 20 percentage points when the test mattered. With retakes and remediation, 95 percent of the class of 2003 passed and graduated on time. Students who don’t pass by the end of 12th grade have access to aligned community college programs where they can continue to pursue their diplomas.

Washington is in a very similar position to the one Massachusetts was in three years ago. More of our students are passing the 10th-grade exam every year and we are seeing large gains in the percentage of students who pass after retaking the exam. We can expect a significant increase in the overall pass rate once the WASL counts for graduation.

Ensuring high school graduates can comprehend material, write clear sentences and use basic mathematics is not asking for the moon. Indeed, our state graduation exam tests math skills that most students should have mastered before they got to high school.

Achieve Inc. compared our WASL graduation standards to those in six other states and Washington had the least demanding questions in math. The rigor of our reading test was below that of most other state tests analyzed.

If we shrink from education reform, if we eliminate or dilute the graduation standards, we’re staying it’s OK for some students not to achieve skills that are fundamental to their future happiness. I’m not willing to say that about my children or any other student in this state.

Nobody wants to see substantial numbers of students unable to earn their diplomas. If we watch and learn from what’s happened in other states, we see that’s highly unlikely. When pushed to meet standards in states across this nation – from Nevada to Indiana to Florida – the vast majority of students have risen to the challenge. Our students will do as well or better.

Students will have multiple opportunities to take the exam. They will receive targeted help. An alternate measure of achievement will be available for students who can’t pass the WASL after two or more attempts. Special education students who meet state developed criteria will not be required to meet standards in order to earn a diploma. These safeguards are mandated by state law.

Rather than assuming the worst, we should assume Washington students will perform equal or better to students in other states. We should focus on helping the small percentage of students who don’t meet standard by the end of 12th grade get the skills they need, offering targeted help and access to aligned programs at the community colleges where they can work toward their diplomas outside the high school setting. This is a formula that works and it will ensure all students get the skills they need.

As we get closer to holding students to reasonable expectations, the pressure to back down will increase. We must continually remind one another why it is imperative to stay the course. Every student deserves a chance at happiness. We can’t give up on any of them.

Steve Mullin is president of the Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit public policy organization composed of chief executives representing major Washington employers.

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