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High school diplomas don't predict the success they should

This weekend, high school seniors will be gathering in auditoriums and on football fields across Long Island, receiving their diplomas. Excited family members will honor them on this special day, and for many, the celebrations will continue way after the students have crossed the stage. Yet, is all this celebration premature? Will the high school diploma issued to the 2009 graduates give them any chance for success in college and the workplace? There is alarming evidence suggesting that the success of many of today's graduates may have little to do with their future achievements in college or at work. This is the result of a very basic curriculum focusing on minimum competencies - one essentially being driven by the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law. A rigorous curriculum is a strong predictor of college readiness. On Long Island, where more than 90 percent of graduating seniors attend college, only slightly more than half graduate with the Regents diploma with advanced designation - the typical benchmark of curriculum rigor in most high schools. Curriculum mastery is yet another predictor of college readiness. But on average, Long Island high schools report that only 37 percent of their students who took Regents exams in 2007 scored at least 85 percent on more than one exam. Lack of rigor and mastery may help explain why many students leaving high school need remediation upon entering post-secondary institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics, for example, estimated that, nationwide, 42 percent of community college first-year students and 20 percent of freshman in four-year public institutions required at least one remedial course. The cost of this remediation is ultimately passed on to taxpayers supporting these institutions - in addition to the property taxes already being paid by communities for the public schools. The link between what's being taught in secondary public schools has little, if any, relevance to what's needed to succeed in post-secondary education. And this relevancy problem goes on to affect the workplace, too. In its 2009 report, the Long Island Index cited the importance of a well-educated workforce in maintaining the region's competitiveness in a complex, global world. Students graduating with only basic skills and minimum competencies will struggle in today's work environment, where critical thinking and problem-solving skills are in great demand. One national study found that U.S. students assessed on problem-solving tasks ranked 29th out of the 40 participating countries. The problem of what is and isn't being taught in today's schools can be fixed. Parents, school officials, university personnel and business leaders should work together to ensure that No Child Left Behind is amended to give educators greater flexibility in preparing students for post-secondary education and work. In fact, help may be coming soon. President Barack Obama recently proposed that dollars be made available to assist states in getting high schools and colleges together on developing curriculum alignment. On Long Island, some of this already has taken place under the leadership of the Long Island Works Coalition. School curricula must be rigorous for all students, with opportunities to succeed at levels well above the current competency levels. Curricula must also have interest and relevancy - students need to see how what is being taught is connected to their future. Internships and job-shadowing opportunities would allow Long Island high school students to see how knowledge learned in school has real-world applications. Policy-makers should receive some recognition for trying to resolve the myriad problems associated with education in this country. But their formulation of the problems was wrong. Instead of focusing on basic competency, they should be asking: How do we provide all students with a rigorous and meaningful curriculum that is relevant to their post-secondary choices of college and the workplace?


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