17 February 2010: 21st Century Grad Requirements & AP v. IB Comparison

Time to bring graduation requirements into the 21st century

When schools Superintendent Bill Patterson told me of the committee looking at graduation requirements, I quipped it was good he didn’t ask me to serve, as we would be discussing 22nd-century skills rather than 21st-century by the time we finished.

Graduation requirements are like course grades: We believe we have a firm idea of what they mean until we think critically about them. In previous articles, I covered the inconsistencies abounding around course grades as they vary from class to class and even teacher to teacher within a discipline. For a refresher, see my Nov. 18, 2009, column about the grading game and why I suggest students earning D’s are most likely to succeed.

When being awarded a diploma from XYZ High School, does it mean I mastered a broad range of proficiencies in every area, including reading comprehension, writing fluency, math literacy and critical thinking? Or does it mean I managed to get through 12 years of seat work and might have along the way mastered a few skills, gained some knowledge, and was generally a pleasant young person who rocked the boat little or not at all?

Can it mean both? The state gives a mixed message. On the one hand, it holds that secondary students under the age of 17 must be in school for 1,056 hours, which, divided by six, equates to 176 days. The other criterion, gaining prominence over the past two decades, consists of measurable standards/proficiencies students are to achieve. The problem is, they are mutually exclusive measurements.

The district committee has developed a list of 21st-century skills such as the ability to do authentic research on the Internet. The one I find intriguing is that of developing perseverance. One would think enduring a 12-year school sentence might serve as an indicator of achieving that standard.

Sarcasm aside, where is it carved in stone that it takes every student 12 years to become proficient? Why not 10? Humans learn at different rates and in different manners. There are skills I can master in a heartbeat and others — that darn leaky pipe — I’ll never get quite right.

Another topic of debate and confusion is that of the AP and IB programs, especially at the secondary level.

AP — Advanced Placement — began in 1955 by the College Board, the same folks who developed and administer the SAT, as a way for advanced students to earn a waiver on future college courses within a discipline: English, biology, etc. Students may enroll in a particular class beginning in 10th grade. Upon completion of the college-level course, a student can opt to take a test to see if he/she has earned the college waiver.

IB — International Baccalaureate — was established in Switzerland in 1968. It is more comprehensive but restrictive than AP in that a student must enroll in every class of the regimen. IB has three levels: PYP, Primary Years Program (grades 1-6); MYP, Middle Years Program (7-10); and the DP, or Diploma Program, for junior and seniors.

In addition to flexibility and comprehensiveness, two other factors distinguish the two otherwise high-caliber programs: philosophy and costs.

IB, as noted above, can begin as early as first grade, and it’s there the practice of inquiry — asking lots of questions and challenging assumptions — is established. Academic acumen is not a factor in that it is not about “acing” tests or accumulating “core knowledge.” Patterson notes, “IB offers a strong, inquiry-based program that directly involves students in their own learning.”

With regard to expense, the AP program costs the district nothing. The only costs, about $85, are paid by students opting to take the final test. IB, however, will cost the district $8,500 this year for just the program at King-Murphy Elementary, and annual costs will be ongoing, as assessments have to be sent to IB for scoring, and ongoing professional development must take place at IB-approved events. About $35,000 in other IB costs is being covered vis-à-vis grants.

Regarding the program going district-wide, Patterson tells me: “The staff at King-Murphy is nearly unanimous in their desire to move ahead with IB, and my intent is to support the substantial efforts that it has made during the past two years.

“Principals of our other schools, though, have indicated they support an inquiry-based program that could parallel IB but prefer to move ahead without the constraints IB places on local decision-making. The education we offer for students is much more significant than the IB label.”

Patterson’s recommendation to the Board of Education is to allow Carlson Elementary, Clear Creek Middle School and Clear Creek High School “to proceed with developing an inquiry-based program that is consistent with the IB academic approach but provides teachers more instructional freedom with less expense than is true with IB.”

This PDF brochure lays out the two programs side by side

Next week: the school district’s budget woes

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