MCPS on ‘Seven Keys to College Readiness’ — update

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that a response to a previous post on MCPS’ “Seven Keys to College Readiness” came from Superintendent Joshua Starr. School system spokesman Dana Tofig says the response that he sent earlier today was from him, not from the superintendent.

I asked Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr for his view of the school system’s “Seven Keys to College Readiness” in response to a post calling for these “keys” to be abandoned. MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig sent a response.

The keys, on the school district’s Web site, are a suggested “pathway for students to follow that will increase their chances of being ready for and successful in college.” They aren’t — and can’t, in fact — be mandatory but they do send a message about how the district looks at student achievement. (It would be impossible for the school system to require that someone get a particular grade on the SAT or ACT, for example.)

David Bernstein, the author of the post titled, “Why MCPS’ ‘Seven Keys to College Readiness should be tossed,” argued that the “keys” should be tossed because they would leave behind a large number of children who can’t follow it. By promoting one path, the districts leaves the suggestion that this is the preferred route. But if you look at the keys, you can see problems with the very first one.

First, here are all of the keys.

1.       Advanced Reading in Grades K-2

2.       Advanced Reading on state assessments in Grades 3-8

3.       Advanced Math in Grade 5

4.       Algebra I by Grade 8 with  “C” or higher

5.       Algebra II by Grade 11 with a “C” or higher

6.       Score of 3 on an AP exam, Score of 4 on an IB exam

7.        SAT score of 1650, ACT score of 24

Calling for “advanced” reading in grades K-2 is a fine goal, but the fact is that not all kids are ready to learn to read and write at the same time. Kids are set up for failure when there is an expectation that they should be able to read by a certain age. It used to be in public schools that youngsters were given the time to develop reading skills, but in the last decade or so, school reformers have “pushed down” curriculum so that kids are asked to do more at a younger age. Many of them can; many of them can’t. Boys are known for developing literacy/verbal skills after girls, and there is some evidence that these new demands on younger males have fueled an educational crisis with boys.

This is not exclusive to Montgomery County, of course, but not every district has seven college readiness keys, of which the first is, “Read at Advanced Levels in Grades K-12.” Here’s what it says on the MCPS Web site about the first key:

The first key will give students the strong foundation they will need for all learning that follows. In the early grades, students read and comprehend levels of text that vary in difficulty. In kindergarten students who can read Level 6 books by the end of the year are reading at advanced levels. By the end of 1st grade, students should be reading Level 16 books. In 2nd grade, students who score in the 70th percentile or higher on the reading section of a national test called the TerraNova 2 are reading at advanced levels. Scoring at the 70th percentile means that they perform better than 70% of students nationwide.

Kids who have failed to accomplish Key 1 could find it hard to deal with Key 2, which calls for advanced reading in grades 3-8.

In any case, here is MCPS spokesman Tofig’s response to Bernstein’s post:

The Seven Keys identify some of the indicators attained by students who have achieved postsecondary success but they are not—and never have been—a mandate. Students who attain all seven Keys increase their chances of being ready for college-level work, but missing a key does not close the door to college opportunities or possibilities. That’s very clear on the 7 keys website (http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/info/keys/about.shtm).

As for K-2 reading, I think we would all agree that having a strong foundation in reading is extremely important and it is a worthy goal to have our students reading above grade level in their early years. But, again, this is a indicator, not a mandate.

The good news is that the percentage of students meeting the early reading indicator continues to rise. In 2011, 76 percent of our students were reading at Text Level 6—above grade level—by the end of kindergarten, up from 56 percent in 2006. For African American students, 72 percent of kindergarten students were reading above grade level by 2011, up from 50 percent in 2006. For Hispanic students, 56 percent of students are reading above grade level up from 38 percent in 2006. This isn’t because of the 7 Keys—this is because of a focused effort to improve student reading in early grades and providing extra resources to schools with high poverty rates.

As an aside, this is the second time that you have run a column by this gentleman that has contained a significant misrepresentation about what is actually required and what is not. The 7 Keys are not a mandate or requirement. Chemistry is not required in Maryland. You run columns by many well-respected experts on your blog. I’m not sure what expertise allows this gentleman to espouse his opinions in this valuable space.

Bernstein, a father of two boys, does say in this piece that the district is guilty of “shoving the seven down” the throats of students, but that is in the context of his opening paragraphs, which note that the keys are listed in classrooms throughout the district.  Besides, my introduction to his piece says that the seven keys are simply “a pathway” to college readiness.

An earlier Bernstein post said that a school principal told him that his son had to take chemistry to get a high school diploma in Maryland. It turns out it isn’t a requirement, which I noted in a correction to the post as soon as I found out.

I publish a variety of guest posts — by teachers, principals, superintendents, researchers, students — with the intention of sparking a debate. Sometimes I agree with their views, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes mistakes are made, as are corrections.

I have applauded Starr in the past for speaking out against some of the harmful effects of school reform that insists on making standardized testing the most important assessment tool. The thoughtful superintendent is more than welcome to write for my blog any time. So is Dana Tofig.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · October 26, 2012