Raising red flags about state education

There’s been a lot of education news lately, and it’s not very good.

The California Department of Education recently revealed that only about two-thirds of the Class of 2006 graduated. The high school graduation rate was the lowest in ten years. One suggestion as to the cause of declining graduation rates was the high school exit exam, which first became a mandatory part of graduation requirements last year.

The HSEE is pitched at an eighth-grade math level. The test measures only ninth- and tenth-grade English competency.

There is more bad news for high schools from ACT, a college testing organization that distributes the most widely used test by high schools across the U.S. for college admission and course placement.

The organization released a report this last week that analyzed results of the approximately 1.2 million students who took the ACT college admissions test and subsequently graduated from high school last June. The test measured students’ academic readiness for college after high school. ACT then predicted the likelihood students would succeed — that is, achieve a “C” or better in introductory college courses — based on College Readiness Benchmarks. The study concluded that only 26 percent of students taking the test were ready for college-level work in the areas of mathematics, English, social studiesand science.

The report’s authors found that high school core courses are not providing the kind of rigor necessary to prepare students for either college or the work force.

For several years, ACT has looked not only at the performance of seniors on the college admissions test, but at the test results of students in grades eight and 10 as well. While the majority of students in those lower grades are by no means achieving at a level that would indicate that they are appropriately on track for college success, there appears to be an accelerating downward spiral, particularly in the last two years of high school. The downturn is particularly pronounced in math and English.

Finally, the National Assessment of Educational Progress data, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card, was made public last week. The NAEP report, which tested students’ historical knowledge in grades four, eight, and 12, found that less than half of our seniors have even a basic understanding of history.

For example, on a question about FDR’s proposal to deal with a contrary Supreme Court in 1935-36, only 28 percent of students correctly answered that the President suggested packing the court. This was a multiple choice question with only four answers, so an expected chance response should have produced about 25 percent correct answers.

One question asked 12th-graders to identify a photo of the Berlin Wall being torn down. The photo was labeled, “Berlin, 1989.” The students also had to explain the impact of the event on U.S. foreign policy. Only 12 percent of seniors gave a correct response.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called our education system broken and dysfunctional and has said he plans to make 2008 the “year of education.” He can begin to help fix the system by closely inspecting our high schools and figuring out why we seem to be failing so many of our students in so many areas.

Patrick Mattimore teaches at a college preparatory school in San Francisco and was a public high school social studies teacher in South San Francisco for 10 years.

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