The seventh-grader, Ishika Gupta of Grand Blanc, Mich., moved through classes so efficiently she got way above grade level. Now, in her third year of high school, she is being told that there will be no fourth year for her. This is apparently the penalty for wanting to learn too much.
I like the mastery idea. It has been tried here and there with some success. But its growth may be stymied by districts uncomfortable with students getting ahead of their age group.
When Ishika, now 16, started fifth grade, a test showed she was a year ahead of her class in math. She was allowed under Michigan law to take sixth-grade math online. She completed it in a few months, so she did seventh-grade math, too. After overcoming some school resistance, she took ninth-grade science as a sixth-grader.
In seventh grade, the school district decided Ishika was going too far. It barred her from a second-year Spanish class she was looking forward to. She had exceeded what the district called her credit limit, a concept I had never before encountered in a secondary school. I have since found it in a few other districts, but Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, told me it was a mystery to the experts he consulted.
Ishika accumulated about enough credits to graduate when she finished her second year at Grand Blanc High School, in 2019-2020. The school let her enroll in this, her third year, but said after that she was through. She was told she had to enroll in college or do something else in the 2021-2022 school year. She had hoped to enjoy what would have been her senior year, with the coronavirus pandemic likely over. She wanted to improve her social and athletic skills and graduate with her class. The principal told her to forget about it.
The principal has yet to tell the family why it is necessary to treat Ishika this way, other than to cite a rule that says he can. Andrea Calvert, spokeswoman for the Grand Blanc Community Schools, said her district wants “to provide reasonable allowances when families desire alternative choices in education,” but since Ishika is a minor and a current student it cannot provide more information.
“We are not insensitive to the fact that they may have financial pressures, especially with covid,” said Ishika’s father, Vipul Gupta. “However one of the biggest things this district constantly communicates is empathy.” When the pandemic struck, he said, the district announced that it wanted “to make sure families know there is no pressure” and that it “cares about you first above grades.”
Ishika told me: “I have been fighting for my right to graduate with the rest of my class because I believe this much is owed to me. . . . It is just not right in my opinion to punish a student for taking on challenges.”
My research indicates that confusion and ignorance on the issue has increased with the rising popularity of dual enrollment credits. These are earned by students who take local college courses, often available at their high school. Ishika has not done that, but she has taken eight college-level Advanced Placement courses and is enrolled in five more.
D. Scott Looney, founder and board chair of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, said that “the idea of a credit limit is really scary. Why wouldn’t we want kids who are motivated to earn more credit?”
When Ishika began mastering courses faster than expected, officials told the family they worried she might not be able to handle the social aspects of being a sixth-grader among ninth-graders. Now they see no problem in “sending you to college where you are totally on your own a year early,” her father said.
Advocates of mastery education have many interesting solutions to this problem. One is to encourage projects, like designing a school building or creating a model United Nations. That takes imagination, which is lacking in school systems devoted to everyone staying on the same schedule.
Ishika and her family are still trying to change her school’s mind. They say some district officials are on her side.
Schools should have space for someone who wants to learn and be a part of a student body. Senior year is a special time in American culture. The pandemic ruined it for many last spring, but that doesn’t mean we should tell students they may not participate because they have taken too many courses.