Friday, March 9, 2012

Report: State's graduation standards reflect definition of rigor

Just as few days after declaring that South Carolina's school standards were too low -- and blaming former Superintendents Inez Tenenbaum and Jim Rex for weakening them -- Superintendent Mick Zais is unfortunately unable to comment upon a new report that shows some of the state's high schools deliver quite rigorous curricula -- rooted in high standards and expectations.

Jay Ragley, Zais's press secretary, told the Independent Mail of Anderson that his boss "had not been supplied the report and was unable to comment on it yet." Hopefully the mail -- if not the Independent Mail -- will get to Columbia soon.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of high school students and thousands of their instructors across South Carolina are learning and teaching according to rigorous standards, and they are certainly able to comment on it. This is the difference between being an educator and being a politician.

"While education experts often disagree on what truly constitutes 'rigor,' the definition put forth by the National High School Alliance succinctly captures the essence of the concept," the report says. "Rigor, according to the alliance, is shorthand for 'an educational experience that leads to a common outcome — that all students are well prepared for post-secondary education, career and civic life. Further it state that rigor is marked by a 'steadfast focus' on increasing achievement for all students through high-level content and instruction, and aligning high school requirements with college and work expectations."

The report by researcher Clifford Adelman says academic intensity can be seen in the requirements for graduation in a school. Adelman's report says academic intensity in high school predicts success in college more than grade-point average, test scores or class rank. In his study, the highest level of academic intensity was a transcript that included 3.75 or more units of English; 3.75 units of math, with the highest being calculus, pre-calculus or trigonometry; 2.5 units of science; more than 2 units of foreign languages; more than 2 units of history and social studies; more than 1 advanced placement course and no remedial classes in English or math.

That transcript closely resembles South Carolina's graduation requirements. In this state, students must have 4 units of English, 4 units of math, 3 units of science, 3 units of history and social studies and one unit of foreign language or career and technology education.

Isn't that something? The definition of "rigor" and "academic intensity" happens to include a catalog of coursework that "closely resembles" South Carolina's own graduation requirements.

I reckon our standards are pretty damn solid, after all, and that our superintendent will be issuing his apologies to the thousands of educators and students he offended with his callous political remarks of last month -- and in writing, since the offensive original column was in writing.

Interestingly, this new report says that South Carolina could offer more rigor to its curricula by doing several things -- "adding to their curricula advanced placement courses, dual credit courses, International Baccalaureate instruction, higher level math courses and early college instruction" -- that will cost a lot of money. Given that Zais has decried our standards and the state of our system, would he initiate a request for the additional funding necessary to implement these recommendations? You know, if his goal is to improve our standards and add more rigor to our school curricula.

That might be called putting one's money where one's mouth is.

Shall we hold our breath and wait for that request to come from the penthouse suite of the Rutledge Building?

Boosting its local readers' schools, the Independent Mail reports that all of the high schools in its area offer the courses recommended by the report.

All of the high schools in the Anderson, Oconee and Pickens area offer advanced placement courses. Many of the schools offer dual credit courses, as well. Student participation in those classes varies depending on the district. Iva-based Anderson School District 3 has the lowest student participation rate in AP classes with 8 percent while the School District of Oconee County has the highest with 24 percent.

"AP classes are rigorous and require success in appropriate prerequisites," said Tripp Dukes, assistant superintendent for instruction at District 5. "All students with the prerequisites and work ethic to handle those classes should be given the opportunity. To get underserved students in those classes begins by raising the expectations and rigor in the elementary and middle schools which we strive to do."

In Anderson School District 5, two new programs — one for high school level International Baccalaureate instruction at T.L. Hanna High School and Early College Academy at Westside High School — offer advanced instruction.

Good for the students and educators in Oconee, Anderson and Pickens counties. Perhaps the superintendent will send his first wave of apology notices to them.

Patte Barth, director of the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education, said bringing academic rigor to high schools depended on the school.

"Are high schools rigorous enough? The answer is 'It depends,'" Barthe said. "High schools are doing a great job of increasing rigor and making students successful. But it is uneven. We're not suggesting any of the suggestions are the only answers, but they are some suggestions high schools can take to make their students better prepared for postsecondary education."

But Hannah Arnold with Crescent said it also depends on the student.

"I think it comes down to the student," she said. "It really depends on what courses the student chooses to take. Our high school course offerings are diverse. It just depends on the student to chose the more rigorous courses."

It always comes back to the student, certainly.

But it helps to have a supportive advocacy structure in the state capital, missing no opportunity to strengthen and improve a public school system that is clearly moving in the right direction, and that would benefit immensely from a restoration of investment in South Carolina's 700,000 public schoolchildren.

If this current Rutledge regime can't meet that need, maybe South Carolinians should raise our standards and elect a new one.

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