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Delaware Standardisto Diploma

Ohanian Comment: Do you ever read one of these stories and think this work is going to drive you round the bend? I read a story like this one and know that one day, one of these accounts of the vicious attacks on children is going to make me flip out.

What will it take to make teachers so angry they won't participate any more?

Just asking.

A rose may still be a rose, but as of this school year a Delaware high school diploma is not just the diploma your father - or older sister - worked for in the past.

Earning a diploma at a Delaware high school will still entail passing grades in classes, as well as reasonable attendance and behavior. But beginning this school year, distinctive diploma ratings - basic, standard and distinguished achievement - will be based solely on the state's high-stakes 10th-grade standardized tests. Those tests already are controversial because some students who do not do well on them must go to summer school or follow an individual education plan to prepare for retaking the tests.

Critics and supporters said Delaware's new diploma system may be all about perception: the perceptions of colleges, employers, teachers, school officials and parents.

Perhaps most important will be the perceptions of students. After all, when you're in high school, perception is life, said Mary Landolt of Middletown, parent of Veronica and Melissa, two Middletown high school students who offer a study in contrasts in the potential effects of the diplomas.

Melissa, who consistently makes the honor roll, may get a basic diploma, the lowest of the categories, because she has not yet met the state standards on the math test; Veronica, although failing one class and barely passing another, is eligible for a middle-ranked standard diploma because of her test-taking acumen.

Tenth-graders now take three tests: math, reading and writing. A student may score from a low of 1 to a high of 5 on each of the tests. The category of diploma a student receives depends on each of the test scores, weighted in a formula devised by the state Department of Education. The writing exam is worth half as much as the reading and math exams. Students are given several opportunities to retake the tests between 10th and 12th grades.

"We give the best and brightest something to shoot for," said state Sen. David P. Sokola, D-Newark North, who helped craft the legislation that made the high-stakes testing and the three-tiered diploma a reality. "Yes, it's one test, but that's what SATs do. This is not the only test that means that much." The SAT is a widely used college entrance exam.

Sokola said the Legislature considered and then discarded the idea of an exit exam. Other states have established such tests, which students must pass to graduate, in response to the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act. The education reform law requires states to develop effective accountability systems that include achievement standards.

Results show holes

Twelve of the states that require exit exams also offer students a tiered system of diplomas if they don't pass. Other states offering tiered diplomas, including Texas and Wyoming, base them on a student's entire body of work, not just a test.

Sokola said legislators decided not to require an exit exam because they feared many kids would not graduate. If Delaware students are unhappy with their diploma rating, they may retake the test up to five years after graduation, he said.

According to a computer analysis of the tests taken by 10th-graders this year, 8 percent of the 7,555 students who took all three tests received scores high enough to earn the distinguished diploma; about a third would receive a standard diploma, and about 60 percent would receive the basic diploma.

More than half of all 10th-graders did not meet the math standards, while a third didn't meet reading standards. About 28 percent did not meet writing standards.

Melissa Landolt, who has made the honor roll several times, did not meet the math standards when she took the test more than a year ago. If she doesn't do better when she takes it again this school year, the 12th-grader would receive the basic diploma.

"I had four other children graduate with regular diplomas," said Mary Landolt. "Why is Melissa, who is on the honor roll, denied this opportunity based on one test?"

Melissa's sister, Veronica, who will start 11th grade in the fall after failing English and barely passing social studies, did well enough on the tests to earn a standard diploma upon graduation. "I exceeded the standards in writing and reading, and I met the standard in math," she said. "I think tests for classes are fine, but tests for a diploma? You still have to take the SATs to determine what college you're in, so why put more pressure on us?"

Although Melissa plans to retake the test, she said she's afraid it won't matter because the results will come after she receives her diploma. "I just don't do very well on tests," she said. "My mind freezes."

Admissions officials at colleges around the state, however, said the rating of the diploma won't matter much.

Impact played down

Louis Hirsh, director of admissions at the University of Delaware, said the tiered diploma would have a very limited effect. "The diploma would be awarded long after the admissions decision had been made," Hirsh said, because colleges often make their decisions before the end of a high school student's senior year. "We look at actual courses. Nothing we do hinges on a single test. We're more focused on what the student's record is over time. A transcript shows that in a way a single test cannot."

But, beginning next year, a Delaware high school transcript will include the type of degree awarded, said Ron Gough, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Regardless, Hirsh said, "I can see the value for employers." So does James Randall, president of Caldwell Staffing Services in Wilmington.

"When we look at two people and one has a college degree and one has a high school degree, the college one will go first," Randall said. "We will probably look at that the same way."

Bank One Card Services said the tiered diploma would have no impact there.

"It would not affect our hiring decisions at all," said spokeswoman Anne Marie Taglienti. "Most of our hires are college graduates." Those who work in the company's call centers, most of whom are high school graduates, work out of state.

Nonetheless, some parents remain perplexed at the reasoning behind the tiered diploma.

"I want to know why you would do this. What are you trying to gain?" asked Sandra Marquez, a mother of two.

"If you're saying students are not performing well, why not hire more teachers and have smaller classrooms and help these children come up to where they need to be? Instead, we're giving out three different diplomas. That doesn't fix the problem."

About 42 percent of low-income students met the standards of the 10th-grade reading test, while 75 percent of higher-income students did.

The scores also reflected racial differences. For the same test, about 46 percent of black students and 44 percent of Hispanic students met the standard, while 76 percent of white students and 82 percent of Asian-American students did so.

Some of the math scores show an even wider performance gap. About 20 percent of black students and 25 percent of Hispanic students met the standard, while nearly 60 percent of white students and about 75 percent of Asian-American students did. About 22 percent of low-income 10th-graders met the standards, while more than half of higher-income students did.

Such performance gaps on the tests have left some parents concerned about using them as the sole basis for diploma categories.

First in class, last in rank

"Before you start segregating and discriminating against these children," Marquez said, "let's figure it out now before we affect them down the line."

Jean McClain, a special education teacher at McKean High School, said she would prefer to see a diploma that labeled an area of concentration, such as English or social studies. "I am concerned that a diploma is really weighted so heavily to one test," she said. "I know many people who do not test well but are good students."

That description fits Delcastle Technical High School honors student Danielle Johnson. Although tied for first in her class of 381 and a potential valedictorian, she will receive a basic diploma if her test scores do not improve when she retakes them. She received a 2 in math and a 2 in reading.

"I've been on the honor roll my entire life," she said. "In math, I passed with 103.9 points, but got below standard on the test."

David Griffith, director of governmental affairs with the National Association of State Boards of Education, said tiered diplomas are smart. "Having something in place where students become self-motivated is good," he said. "The only risk you run is the public perception that there's a stigma attached [to the basic diploma], and I don't know if that will be knowable until the thing is up and running."

— Victor Greto
The News Journal
Diplomas Cause Rift




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