My Fight for an Alternative Diploma

Fearing dropouts and disillusionment, a risk-taking superintendent takes on his state's strict test measures by William C. Cala

For the past four years, parents, teachers, students and administrators throughout New York state have expressed grave concern over a one-size-fits-all diploma, high-stakes testing in grades 4, 8 and 11, the devaluing of vocational, exceptional and alternative education and the testing discrimination against English language learners.


School boards statewide, including many in my own county surrounding Rochester, N.Y., have passed resolutions asking for flexibility in a testing scheme that provides absolutely no alternatives. Position papers have been written by notable organizations (National Research Council, International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English and the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, among others) detailing the inequities of the testing and diploma requirements and providing viable solutions and alternatives. Countless letters have been written and petitions have been submitted to New York Commissioner of Education Richard Mills and the Board of Regents.

Unfortunately, the concerns and calls for flexibility have been all but ignored.

As the new state requirements are implemented, it has become increasingly clear that if no child is to be left behind, it is imperative that we provide a meaningful educational experience for those whose strengths lie in areas not defined by the narrow state guidelines and not measured only on pen-and-pencil tests. It is critical that all students have access to a diploma that is rigorous and meaningful, that embodies enough flexibility to allow for the differences among children.

With the dropout rate in New York state already rising in the general student population and skyrocketing among our non-native speakers, it is imperative that we develop an alternative diploma with great dispatch. To accept the collateral damage of additional dropouts in the name of higher standards is unacceptable.

To ensure broad acceptance of the alternative diploma I am proposing, our district is enlisting as partners the business and industry community, higher education and secondary education. Together, we are designing a rigorous course of study that meets the needs of colleges and the world of work.

This alternative diploma will have integrity and accountability. A board of directors, consisting of representatives from higher education and business, will be the governors of the process and the grantors of the diploma. School districts will be required to follow the mandates of the board and to fulfill the requirements.

We hope to have this diploma program ready by September 2003, and it will not be designed solely for those who do not pass the Regents exams. Three avenues will lead to our diploma. One includes the basic Regents requirements plus various performance assessments that measure the higher-level standards (such as oral presentation skills) that cannot be measured by standardized tests. Embedded in these performance measurements are employability skills. All of the diploma students will receive a certificate of employability.

Doomed Outcome

Why we must proceed with great dispatch in developing this alternative diploma becomes more and more obvious. Nearly every day I encounter another victim of the testing reform. While attending a benefit breakfast recently, I found myself sitting with a local Rotarian. He talked about his son Billy, a sophomore at my high school, who was doing quite well. As a parent, he was thrilled with the instruction, the teachers and the support staff (psychologists and social workers).

This was an exceptional accomplishment for a student who had spent the previous three years in private institutions for children with severe phonological dyslexia. Yet, while the parent was totally satisfied with the progress his son was making, he had decided to send him to the Gau School, a private residential school in Buffalo for dyslexic boys, at his own expense next year.

Why would he send his son to a school where the tuition is $35,000 a year? His reason was simple: He believed his son never would pass the Regents' 11th grade English language arts exam, meaning Billy would not receive a diploma. His final comment to me was that of a caring and concerned father. "Under no circumstance is my child not going to get a diploma."

This father is probably correct. Billy will not pass the exam in its current pen-and-pencil format. He also shared the history of his two older children, who were both poor test takers. His daughter, now the editor of a national magazine, graduated with honors from Northwestern University and was 16th in her high school class of more than 600. His other son earned a master's degree in business with distinction from SUNY Albany and is also highly successful.

Deserving Denied

The ramifications of this scenario are stunning. Billy's low standardized test scores will be eliminated from our high school statistics. Will parents of lesser financial means in city schools or other areas be able to send their children to private schools? I think not. The end result of Billy's move out of Fairport High School will be an improvement (by default) in our school's scores and a further widening of the gap between test scores of suburban students and those in city schools.

Real-life situations such as Billy's make it imperative that all students have access to a diploma that is rigorous and meaningful and one that also embodies and embraces diverse learning skills and flexibility.

Last June, I testified before the state Assembly regarding the significant increase in the dropout rate among students who are designated English language learners. Due to a rigid language testing system (the 11th- grade assessment), a life of opportunity is lost to those who came to America to what they dreamed was the "land of opportunity." In Fairport, a district with 7,200 students, we are blessed with wonderful teachers, administrators, parents and students. Despite all of our efforts, we could not grant diplomas in June to three of our bright, resourceful and courageous immigrant students. New York state should, in good conscience, provide a meaningful course of study for these and all English language learners that leads to a diploma, not to the streets.

Unfortunately, under the current system, students in career and technical education and special education programs soon will suffer the same consequences as the English language learners when their safety nets are removed by the Board of Regents in 2004.

Empty Slogans

Nationally and statewide in New York, we have heard the empty phrases "Leave no child behind" and "The poor of our cities must be afforded the same high standards as our suburban schools." So far, the only equality for all that we are experiencing is the equality of the same test. Equality of curriculum, financial aid, remedial help and social programs is nowhere to be found.

Why shouldn't New York's education commissioner and the Board of Regents heed the directives of the manufacturers of the tests that are given to our children? CTB/McGraw-Hill (the principal test provider in our state) has clearly stated that no one test should be used to gauge educational progress and none of the tests is to be used as high stakes.

These warnings should come as no surprise as the quality and validity of the tests have been under constant attack. Prolific errors in the test questions and the scoring have been the subject of several articles in The New York Times. Unfortunately, New York state has made the conscious decision to ignore the designed purpose of the tests. Imagine a physician prescribing medicine contrary to the pharmaceutical companies' specific protocols. The potential health hazards to patients would be catastrophic. We in education are being forced to commit malpractice on our patients, our students, each time we improperly administer and use tests in a way not intended by design.

We have a sacred obligation to all students, not just to the ones left standing after a barrage of inappropriate one-size-fits-all assessments. It is that obligation and that conscience that drives my part in developing a new alternative diploma.

William Cala is superintendent of the Fairport Central Schools, 38 W. Church St., Fairport, NY 14450. E-mail: william_cala@fairport.monroe.edu