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Helping Kids Who Hate High School

(4) Quit school and choose some other path.

Step 3:

Create a simple report card to evaluate the instructional effectiveness of individual high schools that everyone could understand. It would consist of five simple ¿ and largely unfudgeable - measures of the school's success: its pass rate on the two-year exit exams; its rate of graduate enrollment in four-year colleges (either right out of high school or as community college transfer); its AP/IB test-taking rate; its rate of students earning vocational certifications within four years of completing the exit exams; and its rate of graduates earning bachelor's degrees within six years of completing the college preparatory program.

The three steps would eliminate the high school diploma (an utterly meaningless document) and all standardized tests at the high school level except the eight subject-specific exit exams.

I know this is radical. I know it flies in the face of the ironclad education reform consensus of the past quarter century. I know it goes against virtually everyone's vested interest in the education establishment. But I'll dump it all and stick with my humble day job if you can show me one piece of meaningful empirical evidence that the college-prep-for-all philosophy has resulted in any significant expansion of educational opportunity or achieved any result different from that achieved by the benignly neglectful, teach-only-the-smart-kids philosophy of the 50's, 60's and 70's.

MATHEWS: Okay, here is one: In 1982, high school graduates earned 2.6 math credits and 2.2 sciences credits on average. By 1998, those numbers were up to 3.5 and 3.2, respectively. Also, 405,475 members of the class of 2000 took at least one AP exam. By 2006 that number was 666,067. We never came close to those numbers in the 1960s, when I was in high school. The level of teaching then was inferior, and minority kids from low-income families were routinely shoveled into non-college tracks. How are you going to keep that from happening with your plan, which forces 16-year-olds to make this life-changing choice before they have matured enough to know what they are capable of?

PETERS: There's no question that the college-prep-for-all philosophy has resulted in more kids taking more math and science classes. The problem is that this is an entirely process-oriented statistic. It indicates nothing about outcomes ¿ how students' lives are actually impacted by what they do in high school as you discussed in your column about the career academy. All it means is that kids spent more time sitting through classes with fancy college prep labels on them such as the ones at my school with names like "geometry standards 2" and "integrated math" or "health science" or "earth science" -- all notorious bonehead classes which on paper look like perfectly solid college prep course work. My sense, gleaned from eight years as a high school teacher along with the hard results data, tells me that most kids get absolutely zilch value-added to their lives from those extra math and science units.

Your point about the AP results is admittedly a trickier one. The evidence indicates that high schools with really good college prep programs can boost their 4-year college-going rates from 5 to 10 percentage points over the 15-20 percent national average. Additionally, I can somewhat immodestly claim personal experience working with these new AP test takers, having significantly raised the AP test-taking rate at our high school. ( We're in the top 4 percent on the Newsweek list.) Without question those kids benefited greatly from and are far better prepared for success in college because of their AP experience ¿ which is why this stat is such a good, outcomes-based stat. Here's the problem, though. I believe that all of those new AP test-takers still exist within that top 20¿30 percent of high school seniors that we can't seem to get beyond as far 4-year college-going is concerned. I do not believe that there exists the dream high school where large numbers of average kids take AP tests.

The only demonstrable difference between the bad old days when the teaching you received was so bad and now is that small margin of high-achieving kids are receiving much more rigorous instruction than they used to. I am personally involved in this process and agree that it is a good thing. It is just that it is completely immaterial to the aspirations and needs of the vast majority of high school students.

My proposal does not "lump" anyone anywhere. Kids would earn the right to take voc. ed. in the exact same way that they earn the right to take college prep. No stigma, just freedom ¿ as soon as they earn it.

MATHEWS: Ponder this question raised by your good point on higher ed. In California we have one of the best studies of the effect of AP on college success, by Saul Geiser of the University of California system. He looked at about 75,000 UC students and found that those who passed an AP exam in high school did significantly better in college than those who did not. He also found that half of the students applying to college in California in 2002 had not taken an AP course or even an approved honors course in high school. Don't you think they would do better in college if they had? And how are they going to get that chance if you open the exit door at the end of 10th grade and say bye-bye without keeping them around so they can grow up a bit and encounter a teacher like you who can show them how much they can learn?

PETERS: In regards to your excellent data on the positive effects AP coursework, it strikes me that we're both already getting a little circular in our arguments. You keep giving me very good examples of how improved college prep curricula benefits kids and I keep arguing that, yes, that is true but that these improvements don't touch and won't touch the average high school student. So let my try and get us off this merry-go-round by being more explicit:

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