Editor’s note: This post was submitted to Education News Colorado by Antwan Wilson, Denver Public Schools’ assistant superintendent, office of post-secondary readiness. It offers the district’s response to this blog post from EdNews Publisher Alan Gottlieb, and this article from Westword.
I wanted to take this opportunity to address the concerns raised in recent media reports about the credit recovery at North High School.
The issues raised in the report are very serious ones, and we are actively investigating the claims and reviewing our overall credit-recovery procedures. Should we find violations of our guidelines or ethical standards or the need to implement clearer or stronger policies, we will take action to ensure the integrity and rigor of that program and all of our programs. We certainly recognize that for our diplomas to have value, our programs must be – and be seen as – rigorous.
In addressing the concerns about rigor, it’s important to take a minute to discuss the purpose of credit recovery and where it fits in our overall high school programs.
First, a word on rigor. Over the past several years, the Denver Public Schools has significantly strengthened the rigor of its high school programs. The district has increased the number of credits required for graduation from 220 to 240 (the highest in the state to our knowledge) by adding a fourth year of math and additional lab-science requirement, among other changes.
We have nearly doubled the number of students taking and receiving college credit from Advanced Placement courses over the past five years, and we have also nearly tripled the number of students concurrently enrolled in college-level courses.
The percent of concurrently enrolled students receiving As, Bs, or Cs in these college level courses (and therefore college credit) is over 80 percent. And these increases cross all racial and socioeconomic groups. Our district also has posted double-digit gains in math and reading proficiency on state assessments over the past five years.
Our mission at DPS is to ensure that all of our students graduate high school and successfully pursue postsecondary opportunities and become successful world citizens. This is an important mission in that it sets a high bar that requires that we implement a system district-wide that meets the needs of all of our students regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what their previous academic performance may have been.
Aligning mission to Denver Plan
This mission aligns with the 2010 Denver Plan goal of being the best urban school district in the country. It says that we recognize and appreciate the diversity within our student population and the many unique needs of our students and we are making it our responsibility to construct a system that prepares all students for success in the college and career opportunities they seek.
In order to fulfill this mission, we need to acknowledge where we are currently (a roughly 53 percent overall on-time graduation rate/66 percent for traditional high schools); we need to understand the challenges that negatively impacted efforts to improve in the past; and we need to work to construct a comprehensive system that better meets the needs of the students we serve.
Doing this requires improvement in how effectively we educate the entire child from kindergarten through 12th grade. This includes raising the bar for all students in terms of academic rigor and expectations at all grades and at the same time implementing sufficient supports to ensure that students meet these expectations. We want our most motivated and successful students to know that they are noticed and appreciated, and that they will be challenged to reach their highest potential. At the same time we want our students who experience struggles to know that we expect them to be successful as well and will do what it takes to see that they too reach their potential.
This potential involves preparation for education beyond high school. Whether they be four-year universities and colleges, two-year community colleges or technical schools, or one-year certificated programs and/or military service, our goal is to prepare all of our students to enter these institutions having mastered the necessary standards and without the need for remediation.
In addition to implementing rigorous grading standards, we also recognize that we must have strong support systems when students fail to meet expectations or do not respond to the initial interventions by the classroom teacher and school leadership. Our students have a responsibility to learn, and we recognize that there are some students who have not mastered the study skills necessary to gain subject matter proficiency in their studies. In such cases, these students will earn failing scores and this will require us to provide more intensive supports to help them meet expectations.
Confronting tough challenges
Again, if we are to accomplish our mission to graduate all students and prepare them all to be postsecondary ready, we cannot give up when faced with these challenges. For these students, we will provide targeted support that helps them get back on the right path. These supports include, but are not limited to, interventions such as unit and credit recovery.
Unit recovery should be implemented as an on-time intervention after a student has not demonstrated mastery of content in a major unit of study while enrolled in a class. It consists of the collaboration between the classroom teacher and the student (with the support of school leaders) to re-take a unit that the student failed to master through the demonstration of competency on specific unit standards. This may occur in the classroom, online, or in a blended model.
Credit recovery, on the other hand, involves a student retaking a course they have previously failed. This is typically done in a blended learning environment involving online curriculum and assessments with instructional support provided by a teacher. We are partnering with APEX Learning on these efforts because of the rigor and comprehensiveness of their programs. Their programs are used across the nation in many urban districts to provide original credit, Foundational Courses, Literacy Intervention, Advance Placement courses and preparation, and unit and credit recovery. APEX is accredited by the Northwest Accreditation Commission and approved by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
In order to ensure the rigor of our credit recovery courses, the courses are each supervised by a teacher and the student receives individualized instruction as well as working online. Individual assignments emphasize the mastery of essential state standards, as in traditional courses, and students must demonstrate through assignments mastery of each individual unit before they can move on to the final exam.
To pass a credit recovery course, a student must obtain a score of 80 percent or better, which is 20 points higher than in a traditional course that has a required semester of seat time. Students in a blended learning environment should be supervised at all times and all assessments should be closely monitored as expected in all classrooms. When taking tests and quizzes, students (except as may be provided for in an IEP) may not use of books, notes, web sites, or any other aids.
A thorough investigation
We are doing a thorough investigation of credit-recovery practices and auditing graduation transcripts at North High School to determine if these guidelines were not followed. To date, that investigation has determined at a minimum that there were serious deficiencies in following procedures and keeping records during the 2009-10 school year.
We will continue a thorough and comprehensive review of credit-recovery at North and ensure that the shortcomings at that school from last year are not repeated in other programs throughout the district. We continue to believe strongly in the important role that unit and credit recovery play in our schools, as they do in districts nationwide.
It has long been clear that the old way of requiring a student who fails a course to repeat it again the following year in the same classroom fashion that the student failed it the first time is ineffective and leads to a big increase in dropouts. Our data clearly shows that the highest number of student dropouts fell off track during their ninth grade year due to failing core classes. Data also shows that it is increasingly harder to get these students on track the longer they are allowed to remain off track to graduate. The solution here must be to ensure the rigor of unit and credit recovery offerings, not to do away with them.
We must also face the question, as Mr. Gottlieb points out: “Whether the pressure exerted on high schools to improve graduation rates tacitly encourages school administrators to juke the stats to make themselves and the district look better.”
We acknowledge that this incentive exists here as in many places elsewhere. The incentive to make oneself or one’s unit look as good as possible statistically is true regardless of whether you’re measuring graduation rates, financial performance, academic achievement, or athletic performance. The problem of teachers and schools having incentives to pass students on to graduation by reducing rigor long predates and extends far beyond credit recovery.
The question then is, how do you deal with the fact that these incentives have existed, do exist, and will exist. The answer cannot be to stop measuring or caring about our schools’ graduation rates. For that is clearly one of the most important measures of a high school. Rather, the answer can only be in the district having a strong combination of clear procedures, ethical practices, and strong action to address of any violations.
As part of this effort, I convened earlier this year a task force of teachers and school leaders to clarify and strengthen grading policies, with clear alignment to state standards. Grades should not be based on process elements, like attendance, but on demonstrated proficiency through multiple assignments and test on the elements of the state standards the course is covering.
Setting high expectations for all
Students who are demonstrating an inability to complete assignments as expected by teachers should receive immediate intervention or consequences, depending upon the reason for not completing the work. This may include mandatory tutoring classes before school, at lunch, after school, or during the school day. It may also mean shortening the student’s academic class schedule to include core academic classes and a favorite elective, and then providing targeted study sessions the remainder of the day, with very small teacher-to-student ratios focused on supporting students with the completion at mastery level of work assigned by classroom teachers.
We cannot allow our students to choose to fail and for them to believe that we will do nothing to prevent it. Teachers are NOT to give students either full or partial credit for work they did not do. In fact, we have taken recent action to end a grading practice at one of our high schools that allowed teachers to give a grade of 53 percent to students who missed an assignment.
Missing work is to be marked as missing in the grade book, and interventions are to be implemented immediately to support students who need additional instruction to complete the task or to hold students accountable for completing what was expected of them by their classroom teacher. Like school grading and measurement policies, school makeup work policies should be communicated effectively to all students, parents, and other stakeholders and consistently implemented throughout the school without exception.
We are here as public servants in the field of education for the sole purpose of giving ALL of our students the skills and confidence they need to make their dreams come true. We expect a lot from them and from ourselves. We work hard to challenge, support, and inspire our students. We do not accept excuses for failure; we will not tolerate dishonesty in reporting student achievement; and, we will never give up on a single student.
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