An article in today's Education Week looks at the recent trend for states to enact tougher graduation requirements for high schools. While I (and most Americans, according to this survey, also from Education Week) believe that a lot of graduating high school seniors are not ready for college and should be challenged and expected to meet higher standards that will increase their chances of succeeding, I'm still not convinced it is a great idea to set strict graduation requirements when students have so many different needs. Take English Language Learners (ELLs) in New York City, for example. According to a press release yesterday by the New York Immigration Coalition, over half of ELLs (many of which are newly arrived immigrant students) in the class of 2001 failed to graduate in 7 years and dropped out of school (shown in a recent study by the city Department of Education). In the face of this crisis, the State Board of Regents will be increasing the passing score for high school students to 65 in 2008. ELLs (while more likely than other students to fail) that actually do pass the Regents tend to score in the range of 55-64, which currently allows them to meet the requirement for the low-pass option and receive a local diploma.
Asking for a little flexibility for ELLs (like establishing an alternative English proficiency test for late arriving immigrant students to be able to graduate) to me isn't a question of watering down standards and lowering expectations - it's about recognizing reality and trying to help kids that really need it. According to Margie McHugh, the director of the New York Immigration Coalition, "When ELLs get the help they need and become proficient in English they have the highest graduation rates and lowest dropout rates of all students in New York City—we know that ELLs can succeed if they get a quality education and have a fair chance at meeting appropriate standards.” The gap between proficient and non-proficient ELLs clearly shows that city public schools are not meeting the needs of a lot of ELL and immigrant students, but instead of focusing on the problem (like putting more resources into ESL and bilingual teaching), the state's actions will cause more students to fail and drop out, which hurts their chances at eventually finding good jobs. Schools need to make sure that students are challenged and better prepared for life after high school, but not at the expense of populations like ELLs that need more help and a little flexibility in order to succeed.