By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
Former Hanceville student Miranda Robertson made good grades and got all the inspiration she needed from her high school experience to eventually return as a teacher’s aide in the Cullman County school system. What she didn’t get? A diploma.
Robertson would have graduated in 2005, and though she got to walk and received a certificate of attendance, she still couldn’t technically graduate because she failed one section of a certain standardized test.
It didn’t matter that she made As and Bs every year — what she really needed was a passing mark on the Alabama High School Graduation Exam. Regardless of performance, students have been required to pass the test to exit a state school with a diploma for decades.
After re-taking the test more than half a dozen times, Robertson still couldn’t pass the history portion. So she got a GED, enrolled at Wallace State and eventually earned a teaching degree.
“I made good grades, stayed out of trouble and was even on the Dean’s List at Wallace,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair that I went to school for 13 years, did well, but my graduation was still entirely decided by one test. I don’t know why you would base a student’s graduation on one test.”
Robertson now works at the child development center helping teach elementary-age students — but she still resents that high school asterisk on her resume.
“It makes me mad that I went to school that long and only have a certificate of attendance and a GED to show for it,” she said.
But, things are about to change. Under a new state accountability plan meant to replace the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) guidelines, the graduation exam won’t be the only path to a diploma for much longer.
Dubbed Plan 2020, the Alabama State Board of Education initiative is moving forward with hopes to overhaul the way student achievement is measured in the state. Alabama has applied for a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, and is taking a year to develop the framework for Plan 2020.
Cullman Area Career Center Director Jeff Curtis said situations like Robertson’s are fairly common across the spectrum, with students highly skilled in certain areas though they may struggle on standardized tests.
“I think it happens a lot more often than people realize,” he said. “But with the new focus on college and career-ready, there are a lot of students that are career-ready right out of high school, and might not necessarily require further education. After being in school for 13 years, some want to get out in the world and work a while, then maybe go back to school later on.”
‘The latitude to innovate’
Proponents call Plan 2020 an ambitious effort to improve graduation rates by adjusting the way graduation is achieved, and adapting curriculum to add more hands-on knowledge and career tech objectives. For example: Instead of just doing an equation on paper to determine square footage, students might soon be required to get a tape measure and physically measure a room to reach the result. Same basic question, but different routes to the answer.
“This is the challenge we always face, where a child may make As or Bs in class, but can’t pass maybe one portion of the graduation exam, so they can’t graduate based on the state guidelines,” county schools’ federal programs coordinator Denise Schuman said. “There are some kids who just aren’t test takers, and academia maybe isn’t their forte in life. Students all learn and work differently, some are better with their hands and learn in a hands-on approach. A student might not be able to pass the math part of the graduation exam, but can pull a car engine apart, fix it, and put it back together.”
Instead of the much-criticized federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards that have been in place for nearly a decade, students would now be judged on “college and career readiness” in all core subjects that look at more practical abilities, in addition to local academic indicators and the college-entry placement exam the ACT.
Factors such as end-of-course tests, in-class assessments and certification in trade skills will all factor into the equation.
“We’re making sure we give local schools the latitude to innovate and try different things, where systems can bring innovative ideas in to meet the needs of that community, but still align with the state course of study,” state school board member Dr. Charles Elliott, Cullman County’s representative, told The Times. “The goal is to get kids college and career-ready, but the needs of a system on the Gulf Coast aren’t specifically the needs in Cullman. Students are all different, and have different needs and backgrounds. We’re getting to a point where we can individualize the needs for students.”
‘A dynamic framework’
Elliott, a long-time local school board member in the Decatur area, has seen first-hand the effects a detached, cookie-cutter plan can have on schools at the ground level. Because of that, he believes Plan 2020 could be the escape hatch educators have been waiting a decade to find.
“It’s a beautiful piece of work, and it’s really a strategic plan about where we are as a state right now, but also where we can be in seven years,” he said. “More than that, it also introduces a mindset the state department can use to propel Alabama to make good decisions down the road. It’s a dynamic framework to build upon and work in.”
Ideally, Elliott said the new standards in Plan 2020 should turn the state department into a true partner for local school systems, as opposed to the disciplinary body it has evolved into over the past several years.
“One very useful part is that we’re working to make sure the state department of education is a resource and an ally for local school boards,” he said. “For too long, the state has been seen almost with a sheriff’s badge on, looking for systems that haven’t measured up. When I got on the board, with a background in local education, we wanted to make sure local superintendents are involved in policy development upfront, rather that catching it on the end.”
One aspect of Plan 2020 that is close to Elliott’s heart is the enhanced focus on student support systems, which will work to address everything from truancy to drop-out rates by working with everyone from welfare agents to the parents at home.
“Be it poverty, neglect, or parents with substance abuse — students face some remarkable challenges now, and that’s something we want to address,” he said. “An overriding component is that, when a child enters school, those teachers and administrators look at what might be the underlying problem and work to find a way to fix it. For example, while at Decatur I spearheaded an effort to get social services in Title schools, so there is someone there to help just down the hall when a situation arises, so the teacher can focus on teaching and doing the things they need to do.”
The right track
By overhauling the way students reach graduation, and the standards they need to achieve that goal, Schuman said it should help Alabama schools produce graduates that are more prepared for real life.
“The plan is to take the knowledge and skills they have so they can be successful in whatever post-high school experience they choose, be it a technical school, four-year college or going straight into the work force,” she said. “When they walk out the door, they’re ready. I think it’s a really big improvement, going full force one way, then putting on the brakes and going a completely different direction.”
Schuman likened the plan to creating different “tracks” for students to take on their high school journey, with each one tackling similar curriculum in different ways. But every student will (hopefully) arrive at a diploma by the end.
“You give them an evaluation and see what they’re interested in, then they choose the path that best suits their needs,” Schuman said. “The goal is that when they walk out the door on graduation, they’re read for society.”
More than anything, Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Jan Harris said she believes Plan 2020 represents the simplification of a system that has become dense and convoluted over the past several years.
“I really like [State Superintendent] Dr. [Tommy] Bice and the state board’s Plan 2020, and I like the way it’s divided into four parts, focusing on the learners, professionals, the school systems and the support in place for the learners,” she said. “I think Dr. Bice is unafraid to try new approaches to achieve higher gains in learning and I think he’s trying to simplify the process and make it easier for people to understand what we’re actually trying to do. Like having one diploma, that’s a step in the right direction.”
Can career tech handle the rush?
By making career tech an even bigger focus, and giving it more credence to help earn a diploma, officials expect student interest in the field to skyrocket over the next few years.
The only problem? The Cullman Area Career Center has effectively been at full capacity the past three years.
“I think it’s a great idea and we’ll see a big increase from it,” Curtis said. “But the problem we’ll have to address is that we’ve been full on enrollment for a while now. The economy really helped us out, as people figured out a skill is what’s really needed in the job market these days.”
The county system is currently hatching plans for an engineering academy, and Curtis said he could see the career center eventually expand to accommodate more courses. Luckily, the state added career tech funding for the first time ever this year in the education budget, and Curtis said he hopes that trend will continue as work-ready becomes a bigger focus across the state.
“We’ll need to expand to some degree, if we want to handle the load coming in,” he said. “The past year was the first time the state did a line item in the budget, funding career tech at $5 million statewide. It’s not a whole lot in the grand scheme, but it did mean about $1,000-per-teacher for materials and supplies, which is a big help. As revenue increases with the economy, I think that line item will get bigger.”
Elliott said officials at the state are committed to keeping career tech a part of Plan 2020, and he expects the initiative will lead to more growth in the coming years.
“That is a huge piece of it and we want to work to align what comes on through K-12 with post-secondary in that regard,” he said. “We have some students that have to go to college, and I rejoice in that, and we have other students who are going to get the training they need in high school, or go on to Wallace State or some other two-year school, then make a tremendous contribution to their communities. That’s our goal.”
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.