Maryland's high school diploma lie

Graduation season has come to an end. Scholarships have been awarded. Valedictorians and salutatorians honored. Diplomas conferred.

The graduates have been educated by teachers using more innovative tools and techniques than ever before. Driving these initiatives is an awareness of the importance of individualization and differentiation in instruction. The goal is to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students by meeting students where they are academically and using instructional methods that are as varied as each student.

When we watch each unique student walk across the stage to receive their diploma, we celebrate that they have all met identical, lofty academic standards. We congratulate the skilled educators capable of tailoring instruction to meet the needs of these diverse students. Through this rite of passage, we tell students and parents that each one of these graduates has met the same high standard.

In short, we lie: There is a disconnect between the instructional vision for K-12 education and its culminating award.

One way this lie is perpetuated is through the High School Assessment (HSA) Bridge Plans. As of 2018, these plans are required for any student who does not pass the HSA in certain subjects, including government, which is my area.

Depending on a student’s year and score, they may have to complete multiple projects as part of their bridge plan. Each project has several sections requiring students to read and analyze stimuli in order to answer several short-answer questions. The project culminates with an essay or PowerPoint aimed at answering a compelling question.

To meet the demands of these projects, schools have scheduled bridge plan classes, required students to stay after school, and/or offered Saturday sessions. And, as the completion deadline looms, students are often removed from class to complete the projects.

The stated goals of educators and the education system are about meeting individual needs to help students grow. The reality for many students is that the goal of high school is to survive. It’s an experience to endure. Complete task A to get paper B. Did you learn something? Did you grow? Both questions are less important than checking the boxes of graduation requirements. This approach stifles the curiosity and creativity we demand from graduates while violating our vision of education.

The students tasked with Bridge Plan projects face a variety of challenges that led them to this path. Regardless of academic disparities or native language, the vast majority do complete their Bridge Projects. But they aren’t graduating because we identified, analyzed and addressed deficiencies. Rather we ignored them for as long as possible, then devoted many resources to task completion devoid of any considerations about a student’s aptitudes. Where was this concern years ago when it might have made an academic difference? This system does not marshal our limited resources effectively or efficiently.

We are all responsible for this problem. Imagine how you would respond to hearing that your child’s school or school system had a graduation rate 5, 10, 15, or 20 percent lower than the previous year? How would elected officials respond? The superintendent? Principals? Teachers? The answer is predictable, and it becomes easier to see how talk of holistically trying to help students devolves into getting them through. We all play a part in the problem, and we all have a role in its solution.

For starters, let’s get rid of the singular definition of a diploma. We know our society needs people with skills more varied than ever before. Let our high school diploma reflect that. It’s time to offer a variety of pathways to a high school diploma. Do some states use this system to inflate graduation rates? Absolutely, but we are doing the same thing by manipulating our current system. Let’s at least be honest with students and families.

Finally, let’s stop using the graduation rate as a measure of school success. Give Baltimore County’s new grading policy — which tries to revise our evaluation mechanisms from task completion to growth and learning — some credit. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. As the state looks to implement its 5 star rating system, it should consider adjusting how we view and evaluate our students and schools. Maintaining a system that diverts valuable resources away from serious, academically relevant activities into ones that emphasize survival is a disservice to students and the community.

Both of these solutions would free resources from the cycle of assessment and remediation and return them to addressing the learning needs of each unique student in our system.

Adam Sutton (toeball2@yahoo.com) is a social studies teacher and department chair within Baltimore County Public Schools.

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