The Myth of the Failing High School in Iowa

The following article by Superintendent Nancy Sebring was originally published as a guest editorial in the Des Moines Register on Sunday, October 2, 2011:

Earlier this year, the Washington Post released its High School Challenge Index, a list of the top high schools in the nation when it comes to preparing students for college. Just making the list was an accomplishment, as only 7 percent of the nation’s high schools met the criteria.

The Post recognized these as their top six schools in Iowa: Cedar Rapids Washington, Des Moines Roosevelt, Cedar Rapids Kennedy, Ames, Iowa City West, and West Des Moines Valley.

What do these schools have in common?

For one thing, they offer a rigorous and broad selection of Advanced Placement courses and other programs for college readiness, and are leading the state in students who are AP scholars, National Merit scholars, scholarship winners, and ultimately attendees to the top colleges and universities throughout the nation.

Specifically, in the case of Des Moines Roosevelt, last year the school had 11 National AP Scholars, seven recipients of the International Baccalaureate diploma, more than 500 students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, two students who were admitted early to MIT, and five students who earned a perfect composite score on their ACT exams.

What else do these schools have in common?

According to the federal government, each one is a failure.

The recently released No Child Left Behind (NCLB) report card for Iowa lists each of these top-performing high schools as a “School in Need of Assistance.” In fact, in Iowa this year a record number of 524 schools failed to meet the federal NCLB targets.

How is it possible that high schools identified among the top in the nation can simultaneously be considered failing schools?

Under NCLB, all public schools are required to be on a path in which 100 percent of 
students reach proficient levels in reading and math by 2014. Schools are held accountable to ensure that students in each of nine different subgroups — race and ethnicity, poverty, language, and students with disabilities — make progress. The intent of NCLB was noble: to bring to the light the plight of thousands of students who had historically not been well-served in the nation’s schools.

But there are significant flaws in NCLB. One is its failure to acknowledge that two of the student subgroups — English language learners and students with disabilities — are dynamic in nature. Students enter and leave these subgroups based on their proficiency. When students have met their goals they are exited from the subgroup, to be replaced, in a sense, by other students who are not proficient.

Another is that the targets for all students ratchet up each year, creating a situation where some schools make progress and yet, according to NCLB, fail. Given enough time, most schools in America will be “in need of assistance” under NCLB.

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, who began the “Challenge Index,” acknowledged the paradox of high performing yet failing high schools. For one thing, most of the nation’s most top high schools also reside in the nation’s most diverse districts. The reality, he said, is that no school in America has been able to overcome the cataclysmic effects of chronic poverty. While an “achievement gap” exists for these students, it is not in a vacuum but more often the result of other gaps in these children’s lives: nutrition, health care, employment, transportation, language, housing, technology and more.

To make a real difference in the lives of underachieving students in our most urban school districts, the development of sound education policy must be accompanied by the more difficult and complex effort to address the gaps student face outside of the 15 percent of their lives spent in a classroom.

And yet, Iowa high schools and their students are accomplishing more today than at any point in history.

Consider this: 25 years ago, minority students comprised 2.4 percent of enrollment in Iowa and there were fewer than 3,000 English language learner students. Most high schools required just 18 credits to graduate, including three credits of English, one and a half credits each of math and science, and only one credit of social studies. In fact, in 1986 fewer than half of Iowa’s high schools offered a math course beyond Algebra II.

Last year, minority students comprised 17.6 percent of enrollment in Iowa, and more than 21,000 English language learner students attended our schools. Today, most Iowa high schools require up to 24 credits in order to graduate, including four credits of English and three credits each in math, science and social studies. That’s a 33 percent increase in credits in 25 years, or the equivalent of requiring an additional year’s worth of work from students but with no additional time to complete.

However, thousands of Iowa high school students are going well beyond those requirements. Eleven thousand students took nearly 18,000 Advanced Placement courses last year. Two-thirds of Iowa students who took AP exams scored a 3 or higher, earning college credit.

Partnerships between Iowa high schools and colleges have further resulted in 29,000 students completing 36,000 college courses. Today, 90 percent of Iowa high schools offer concurrent enrollment classes. None of this was possible for Iowa high school students 25 years ago.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Iowa continues to be a national leader on most measures of high school success, regularly among the top three states on ACT college entrance exam results as well as our overall high school graduation rate. Not to mention that our fourth, eighth and 12th grade students are always above the national average in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.

Dire reports have also not dampened the support parents have for their children’s public schools. In fact, according to the 43rd Kappan/Gallup Poll, Americans have never been more satisfied with the schools their children attend. When asked what grade they would “give the school your oldest child attends,” 79 percent of parents responded with an “A” or a “B”.

Iowa high schools have never been more successful. No traditional indicator of school success has gone down in the last decade. More students than ever are enrolling in college. Many leave high school with college credit in their back pockets. The number of students participating in “college-readiness” curriculums has exploded over the past decade.

Iowans are now engaged in an effort to reform education in Iowa. Any sound policy proposals from the recent education summit or from the governor’s office on Monday must address the paradox that high schools in Iowa are successful and competitive, while at the same time many factors behind the “achievement gap” occur well beyond the classroom walls.

Must education improve? Of course it can, and it will. But if policy makers ignore what is working in our schools and what is taking place outside of them, it will lead to hollow education reform efforts.

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