The Newest High School Graduation Requirement

The Newest High School Graduation Requirement on ParentChat with ReginaWhat if your state were as progressive as Louisiana? Well, that should get you to sit up and take notice since Louisiana is not usually the state that other states look to for education leadership. And yet, here it is: Beginning with Louisiana’s graduating class of 2018, all public high school seniors must apply for financial aid for college in order to graduate from high school (unless a student submits an opt-out form signed by a parent).

Louisiana students can meet this new requirement, adopted by its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, by applying either to the federal government though the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (widely known as FAFSA) or to the Louisiana’s state office that provides assistance with obtaining both state and federal aid. According to the Education Commission of the States, Louisiana is the only state with this sort of high school graduation requirement.

An Education Week article by Catherine Gewertz explains that, each year, only about 44 percent of public high school seniors in Louisiana apply for financial aid. The national average is about 55 percent.

If Louisiana could get its rate of applications up to the national average, those students would produce about $54 million in revenue for higher education systems in the form of state and federal aid, according to FAFSA. In other words, students would get financial assistance to attend college, but colleges would get the government dollars that students would bring with them to the campus.

The article points out that, according to the research, “failure to complete financial-aid forms is one of the most powerful stumbling blocks on the road to college.” To be sure, filling out the forms is not straightforward, and a lot of specific personal financial information is required. For many families, the application is daunting—no matter how many times the government claims to have made it simpler.

For that reason, I have always recommended that families use a reasonably priced service (available by telephone) to fill out and submit the form, even though many schools have workshops of all sorts to help families with the process. By the way, Louisiana intends to make school-based help available by providing some funding to organizations that offer that kind of assistance, according to the article.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your high school address the problem of applying for financial aid, especially if you do not live in Louisiana:

  • All parents: Ask your school board if the board has a policy on whether completing financial aid applications is an important part of your school district’s definition of “college readiness.” Does the policy include providing help for high school seniors and their families in completing those applications? Does the board require that kind of assistance to be available districtwide? Ask the board to discuss Louisiana’s new graduation requirement and to consider whether the board might want to make a similar policy for your school district (that could be done regardless of whether your state has a Louisiana-type policy). This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting.
  • High school parents: Whether your school district does or does not have a board policy on completing financial aid applications, ask your principal what financial aid workshops are available at the high school. Who is running those workshops—school staff or staff from outside organizations? What if students and parents need more help than those workshops can provide? Ask the principal and guidance/college counselors to discuss any procedures for advising seniors individually about the financial aid process. How are parents brought into or made aware of the information from those individual sessions? Are you satisfied that, as parents, you are getting the help you need in understanding and completing financial aid applications?

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Is the Government Listening?

Is the Government Listening to Parents? on ParentChat with ReginaJust 18 percent of parents think that the government listens to them when it comes to their children’s education. Only about 33 percent of parents polled by a national PTA group said that they understood the changes that the government was making to education.

These research results were reported by BBC News education reporter Judith Burns two months ago. Oh, you thought these results were about parents in the U.S.? The results are from the UK, but they could just as easily have been from the U.S. Although our systems of schools and the way those schools are governed are not exactly the same, the parental complaints seem sadly similar.

No one who just watched the uproar over the implementation and testing of Common Core Learning Standards could disagree. No one who just watched 20 percent of New York State parents opt their children out of the State tests could disagree. The government didn’t listen, lots of U.S. parents would say.

PTA UK executive director Emma Williams was quoted by the BBC News as saying, “The two primary influences on children’s education is that of the school and their parents. However, the parent voice has, up until this point, been largely absent from the national education debate…. PTA UK believes that as primary stakeholders in their child’s education, parents should be consulted and that schools should be accountable to parents.” Yes, of course. Who could disagree with that?

While I am concerned about governmental responsiveness to parents at our federal and state levels here in the U.S., I am more concerned about governmental responsiveness at our local level—that is, in our local school districts, where virtually all of K–12 education actually happens and where so many crucial education decisions are made every day. And, fortunately, it is much easier to make your voices heard, parents, at the local level—much easier to make sure that the government is listening.

The BBC News story goes on to mention that PTAs are often associated with conducting fundraisers for their schools. Are you surprised? Not if you have a PTA in your school district. Indeed, more and more school districts are benefiting from their own related nonprofit organizations designed to do just that: raise money. While raising money for schools can be a useful activity for parents to engage in, I doubt that it is more influential in improving the quality of education in schools than finding a significant way for parents to participate in the decision-making process about curriculum and instruction and assessment—whether that participation is at the district or individual school level. It might be easier for parents to do, but is probably not more influential. It might be more welcomed by administrators, but is probably not more influential. So shouldn’t you spend your time and effort where you can be the most influential?

It is time to take a look at how well your local government education agency (that is, your school district) listens to parents:

All parents: Ask your school board to talk about its current policy on how parents should be involved in important decisions. How does the school board hear parent voices—through surveys, through series of issue-specific public meetings, through advisory committees, or some other way? What is the role of the PTA in the decision-making process? Does the PTA speak for the parents in your district? Do you as parents feel that your voices are being heard?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent in advance to understand how the board’s policy is being implemented and how it is being monitored for effectiveness.

Ask your principal if there is a separate process for how parents are involved in important decisions that are made at the school level. If there is a separate school-level process, how is it related to the board’s policy? What is the role of your school’s PTA in that process? Does the PTA speak for the parents in your school?

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Parlez-vous français?

There are probably 20 reasons why U.S. schools should be teaching more foreign languages more effectively. At least that’s my view. I would be interested in yours, parents. (By the way, foreign languages are now often called “world languages,” which makes sense, or “languages other than English,” which makes sense, but is a bit awkward, I think. I am using “foreign languages” here because I believe that is still what most parents would say.)

Parlez-vous français? | ParentChat with Regina | There are probably 20 reasons why U.S. schools should be teaching more foreign languages more effectively. At least that’s my view. I would be interested in yours, parents. You might want to read up on the subject in two thought-provoking articles in Education Week, written by Global Learning blog curator Heather Singmaster, assistant director of education at Asia Society—“Bilingualism: Valuable for the Brain and Society” and “Foreign Language Policies: Is Everyone Else Really Speaking English?”:

She talks about economic, socioeconomic, cultural, cognitive, and national defense arguments in favor of increased attention to language study in U.S. schools. She talks about reasons that are important to our country and reasons that are important to individual students. She talks about language learning requirements in other countries and how we stack up—or don’t.

Some of it is common sense, and some isn’t. For example, here is something I didn’t know, and it should be especially interesting to parents of elementary school children. Ms. Singmaster writes about Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies:

An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism, and the development and spread of languages. In traditional societies [like those in New Guinea and the Amazon Basin], multilingualism was (and is, for the very few that remain) widespread. While many in the West fear that our children will be confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time, kids in traditional societies begin learning additional languages from birth—and not just one or two. Diamond can’t think of a single person he has met in New Guinea that speaks fewer than five languages (and yes, they are all “mutually unintelligible languages,” not dialects).

We have been told that the early years are the best for learning another language; it is one argument that has been used in favor of elementary school foreign language programs for a long time. But Diamond’s work in New Guinea takes that argument to a whole new level.

I recently returned from a visit to a school district in a Far Western state. The state awards scholarships for college study to its high school graduating seniors. Among the requirements are two years of foreign language study and three years of math and three years of science in high school or no foreign language study and four years of math and four years of science. How does that make sense? In what world are two years of foreign language study equivalent to a fourth year of math and science, regardless of which you think are more important? If those were college distribution requirements, no college in the country would agree to that swap.

While I am not arguing against the value of a fourth year of math and science, I am arguing that studying a foreign language (or more than one) provides students with a completely different kind of intellectual and cultural experience—one that students shouldn’t miss out on in high school, especially if they are not going on to college and this is their last chance to learn a second language as part of their formal education. It goes without saying that being able to communicate in a second language—even at a fundamental level, which is all a student is likely to get out of two or even three years of high school study—could be a big help to students as they enter the working world, especially if they live in or move to a location that has a large population of workers who speak other languages, as many urban and rural areas do.

Furthermore, there are still quite a few colleges, including some of our best colleges, that are expecting to see foreign language study on their applicants’ high school transcripts. Two years of foreign language study would be the minimum that they would be looking for. Some great colleges are expecting three or even four years—typically of the same language.

Parents, the fact that your state might not require any foreign language study for high school graduation or might require just one year’s worth (as New York State does) does not mean that your school district cannot require more (just as your district might require more of any given subject than your state requires)—that is, more foreign language study to ensure that your children are, literally, college and career ready.

It is time to take a look at both your state’s and your school district’s requirements for studying a foreign language:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about your state’s requirements for foreign language study in order to earn a high school diploma in your state and then about your school district’s requirements for foreign language study in order to earn a high school diploma in your district. Are those requirements the same or does your district require more years of foreign language study (it can’t, of course, require fewer)? What is the school board’s reasoning for the foreign language requirement in your district? What was the superintendent’s reasoning for recommending that requirement? How were the specific languages offered in your district chosen? What do labor market statistics or other indicators say about the value of learning various specific languages (e.g., Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin)? When does foreign language study start in your district? If you are not lucky enough to have foreign languages in the elementary schools, why not? What does the school board think is more important? What community input was obtained when all of these decisions were being made?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent, assistant superintendent for instruction, central office specialist, principals, department chairs, and/or teachers to find out exactly what the district’s decisions were based on and to determine whether there are any grounds for rethinking any of those decisions if you are not satisfied.

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SAT/ACT: Required for All Students?

SAT/ACT: Required for All Students? on ParentChat with ReginaHere’s a trend I missed (and I do this for a living): Almost half of the states and many individual school districts in other states are now requiring all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, and they are footing the bill. Perhaps equally important, they are testing the students during the school day in the students’ own school. Well, that certainly makes life easier for a lot of high school students and their families. Not having to pay for the test is one thing (without even having to get a waiver from the testing company); but not having to figure out how to register, get your child to some testing site that might be new to you both, and make sure your child arrives at the crack of dawn on a Saturday might be even better.

Some states are indeed using the SAT or ACT as the final piece of their state testing program rather than giving a state-developed test or one of the new tests designed to match the Common Core Standards, thus lessening the testing burden for high school students, many of whom would have had to take the SAT and/or ACT for college admission purposes in addition to their state’s own test. Connecticut, one of the most recent states to jump on board, will be giving the SAT this year to all of its high school juniors at no cost, but will not require a minimum SAT score to graduate.

Now, there is a lot of talk among educators at the state and local level and in higher education about whether the SAT and ACT actually measure a state’s own curriculum standards and, thus, whether the SAT or ACT could fairly be used as a measure of what students learned in their high school classes. Some argue that tests specifically developed by the state or by one of the testing companies associated with the Common Core work that many states have adopted would be the only fair assessment.

Of course, no parent would ever wonder about that because it is just a matter of common sense. Let’s take the SAT. Clearly, it measures English and mathematics skills—skills befitting a high school student who is about to graduate and, hopefully, continue his or her education at a college. Shouldn’t that be good enough as a test of a student’s capabilities—regardless of what the state curriculum standards do or don’t say?

What could be a better definition of “college-ready”—the education buzzword of the last five years—than that students can do reasonably well on a test that hundreds and hundreds of U.S. colleges insist that students take before they apply? The fact that some colleges each year add themselves to the growing list of colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT for admission (the “test-optional” colleges) does not negate the fact that many, many colleges still do require the SAT or ACT for admission. Even many of the test-optional colleges tell students to send their SAT or ACT scores if they think that the scores are a good representation of their abilities (meaning, “send your scores if they are good and you think they will help you get in”). By the way, many, many students applying to great test-optional colleges do just that.

While I am no particular fan of either the SAT or ACT, I do recognize what a hurdle it is for some kids to jump and what a relief it would be for many families to have that hurdle removed. I have seen that hurdle up close in New York City. Here is a statistic that supports the point. According to a recent report of education in 50 U.S. cities just issued by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 15 percent or fewer of all high school students took the SAT or ACT in 2011–2012 in 32 of those cities. (The report, Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, explains that we might have expected the figure to be in the 25 to 50 percent range, if we believe that most eleventh and/or twelfth graders in a high school take these college admission tests in any given year.) However you look at it, urban high school students are not taking the SAT and ACT in the numbers that we would expect to see—or hope to see—if we believe that urban students should have the best shot at attending whatever college they wish, either right away or in the first few years after high school graduation.

If you live in a state or school district that requires all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, maybe now you can see how lucky you are. If you do not live in a state or school district that requires all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, it is time to take a close look at why not:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to have the superintendent provide the numbers of juniors and seniors and the percentages of the junior and senior classes that have taken the SAT or ACT in your school district over the past five years. Ask the school board to discuss whether administering the SAT or ACT to all eleventh graders in the spring and/or all twelfth graders in the early fall would be a good idea—either to confirm students’ “college readiness” as they leave your district or to ensure that every student has the opportunity to apply to any college requiring these test scores. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study background information before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators before and/or during the meeting, including what the cost would be of providing this testing at district expense and what, if anything, might have to be given up in the budget to make such testing possible.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal to provide the numbers of juniors and seniors and the percentages of the junior and senior classes that have taken the SAT or ACT in your school over the past five years (if you have more than one high school in your district). Ask your principal to discuss how students are advised about taking the SAT and/or ACT. Are all students encouraged to take one or both of the tests? Are all students advised about how many times to take the test and when to take the test? Are all students given help in registering for the tests? Are students who qualify for fee waivers given the help they need to get those waivers? Is the high school a designated testing site? If not, why not and what would it take for the high school to become a designated testing site?

P.S. After I wrote this and before we got it posted, New York City announced that it would offer the SAT at no cost to all public high school juniors, with the test given on a school day rather than on a Saturday. Great that it’s free! Great that the kids don’t have to register! Great that it’s given on a school day! All those hurdles have now been jumped. But just offer it? Why not require it? Almost perfect, New York City. So close.

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