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Forums on Basic Skills and Higher Standards: Roosevelt High School
by Leonard Witt
Executive Director, Civic Journalism Initiative
Minnesota Public Radio

In October and November of 1999, Minnesota Public Radio's Civic Journalism Initiative held forums at Roosevelt High in Minneapolis, North High in North St. Paul and Hills/Beaver Creek High School in Southwestern Minnesota. The idea what was to learn first hand from teachers, parents and students how they felt about the higher standards and basic skills tests. The schools were purposely chosen because one was an urban school (Roosevelt), one suburban, (North) and one was rural. (Hills/Beaver Creek.)

Higher Standards Forums at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 2,1999

Themes, key issues and questions

Roosevelt High School - The Teachers
Roosevelt High School - The Students

Roosevelt High School - The Teacher - Forum Held November 2, 1999

A special population and basic skills
Roosevelt High School in Southeast Minneapolis is quite different than North High in suburban St. Paul and Hills/Beaver Creek in rural Southwest Minnesota. Its school population is diverse with more than a third of the students being Somali, which is a strength in many ways, but often those ways are not reflected in testing. Indeed, at the Roosevelt forum most of the discussion centered around the Basic Skills Test because the teachers were estimating that some 40 percent of the kids would not pass them, meaning they would not graduate on time.

Principal Fred Meyer said: "You need to know that out of a population of grades nine through 12 with 1,541 students there are over 600 students quoted as (English as a Second Language) students, and they are coming to us every day. You add to that approximately 150 special education students and 50 in the moderately mentally impaired program and 10 in the emotionally behavior disorder, you are talking over 50 percent of our student body has special needs."

Return to top of page Somali arriving every day
So for many of the teachers the biggest challenge is just getting the kids to pass the basic skills test and then worry about the higher standards later. Teacher Tom Odendahl said: "A lot of our students are not native English speakers, and will not have been here even five years when they become seniors. So I don't think they have a chance of passing the basic standards test in reading and writing. There are other students who just don't take the test seriously. And there are students who don't have the skills and will not get them."

He added, "To become fluent in a completely different language within three or four years and take a test in it and be expected to write about abstract things or read about abstract things and reflect on that--that's very difficult. I have students in my class who have been in the United States for less than a year, and they started speaking English when the got off the plane."

Teacher Melis Aric said English is especially difficult to learn and to translate and to test well on because it is so idiomatic. If you were not a native speaker, she said, think about figuring out the newspaper headline "She packs a wallop". "They have no idea what a wallop is or who packs them."

Bruce Gilman, associate principal, points out that since many of the Somalis never had schooling in Africa "they are not only coming to us as English language learners, they are coming to us illiterate in their native language."

Lisa Johnson, who runs the English as a second language program, said: "I sign in the new registers. Every day it averages five new Somali students right from Africa. Some of them have never been to school. Some of them maybe have one or two years, but they have been living in refugee camps for eight to ten years. And they are coming directly to us."

Teacher Michael O'Connor echoed the sentiment of most of the teachers at the forum when he said, "I am glad the foreign born students are here." And he added, "If I was just going strictly by percentages of American born versus foreign born who are my best students, and by that I mean not who does the best on tests but who really works the hardest, hands down it is the foreign born students. They are also the ones not passing the test, but they know what the value of an education is. "

Tom Odendahl said, " I love having them in my classes and I love having them in the building. What I think is the problem is the way the entire educational system looks at schools as being exactly the same. We will print test results in the newspaper without anyway showing what the students are actually doing to learn." He said every student is different. The way the tests are set up he says it's as if one size must fit all. You wouldn't do that with T-shirts he said and you shouldn't do it with tests.

Even with these language handicaps the teachers said so far there have been no special provisions for the foreign kids when it comes to passing the basic skills or the higher standards for graduation.

Return to top of page Tremendous student turnover
Principal Fred Meyer said that only two-thirds of the kids that were in the classroom in the beginning of the school year will remain at the school all year. There is a tremendous amount of movement. This movement is true for American born kids and the foreign kids. Meyer said in the first eight weeks of school there was a turn over of more than 300 kids leaving and another 300 kids entering the school.

Al Frost, social studies, said: "The data suggest that student who began with the Minneapolis system when they are in kindergarten all the way through eighth grade, they do very well. But the problem is that we have such an influx of kids from other districts which are poorer than Minneapolis districts and when they come they are sort of behind and it is awfully difficult to get those kids caught up. I am talking about kids from Chicago, Gary etc..

Return to top of page Social deficits
Meyer said, "There is a company called Search Institute that has discovered that you need some 41 assets to be a developmentally effective learner in school, and you have got to have somewhere around a minimum of 30 of those assets and many of our students do not have those assets when they come to high school. And that, of course, involves a lot of variables that impact on their learning or their failure to learn."

The outcome is that a lot of kids are not passing and three fourths of the teachers in the room believe the tests are forcing kids to drop out of school early. One teacher suggested that the system allow for two types of degrees. One is a certificate of attendance and one a certificate of competence.

Return to top of page The basic skills conflicts
Teacher Nonie Kouneski said, "I feel really conflicted about the basic standards test because I think it is really important that our kids know the basic skills. At the same time I see kids who have failed one or more of those tests who are intelligent. They are extremely intelligent and they are going to function very well in society."

Delaini Haug teaches the seniors who have not passed the basic standards for four years. She said, "They have to pass in reading this year or not graduate. It is a serious issue in that they have been remediated and they are reading poorly written newspaper articles instead of good literature because we have been remediating them for so long. That's all we have been pushing them to do, read newspaper articles, and I think if they graduate from high school with that skill alone they are missing out on a lot of other things."

Tracey Pyscher said, "The test should continue. It is a relevant test; the students need to have those skills when they graduate. They move out of middle grades with sometimes no skills. I can see a difference between the students who have passed and the students who have not. It actually motivated me to teach basic skills. I sometimes get caught up in the higher learning stuff and it kind of caused me to slow down. It motivated me to look at the lower group."

Return to top of page Higher standards packages appreciated
When the conversation finally got around to the higher standards, several of the teachers said they liked them with caveats. Lisa Johnson said, "I can't teach the high standards because it's way above them. They're not going to pass basic skills so they are not going to pass the high standards. I teach kids who just arrived in the country. I'm giving them life skills." She continued, some standard packages can be modified for the more advanced English as a Second Language students, but for the new immigrants, she said, "I'm teaching the alphabet. You can't modify a package for that level."

Jim McComas-Bussa, a science teacher, said: "The Basic Skills Test tests one way and that's it. And the higher standards allows a lot more feel in terms of multi-intelligences, in terms of the kids choosing what they are good at, choosing their own way to present the material. Even the Basic Skills math test, if you can't read, you are not going to pass the math test. So it is just testing the one way. If you don't have that intelligence, you are out of luck."

Return to top of page Roosevelt High School - The Students - Forum Held November 2, 1999

Struggling to pass the tests
Among the sophomore students we met at the first student forum at Minneapolis's Roosevelt High School approximately 60 percent of them had not yet passed both portions of the basic skills test. They had until their senior year to do so if they want to graduate. In addition, this class also would have to complete 24 of 48 Profiles of Learning packages if they are to graduate on time in 2002.

Qualitatively the discussion here at Roosevelt was different than the forums at suburban North High in North St. Paul and rural Hills/Beaver Creek in Southwest Minnesota. Here the discussions were about the pressure of passing and failing, graduating and not graduating, succeeding and failing where at the other two school, the talk was of inconvenience and teaching philosophies.

The teachers' forum we held at Roosevelt got behind some of the reasons for the large number of kids unable to pass the basic skills test. Now it was time for the kids to speak out. Interestingly, 60 percent of the students in the room felt the basic skills test was fair. And all of them thought they would pass it by their senior year, which means they are more confident than their teachers.

One student said, "By the time you are a senior you are looking forward to bigger things so this is something you will want to get out of the way as soon as possible. You just have to mature. So you will pass it."

Another student said the basic skills test was fair because it matches what you will need to know in the workplace plus, "They give them more than one chance. It is not like if you take this once, you fail."

Another student who wanted to back to the old ways said, "I think if they got enough credits they should be able to graduate."

Return to top of page Difficult for English as a Second Language Students
Although a native English speaker, a student speaking for the English as a second language students said, "They should have a separate test for ELL students (English Language Learners) because it is kind of hard to expect them to know what we learned all our lives. Yet at the same time there is that controversy, should you pass somebody out into the world that doesn't have the skills. It is a two sided issue. But there has to be some way other than just expecting them to know everything."

Return to top of page Higher standards, negative reactions
On the higher standards which require the kids to complete 24 of a possible 48 Profile of Learning packages, the reactions were mixed from total rejection to acceptance. On the negative side a student said, "It's just a bunch of hippie crap. They just keep making new things for us teenagers. They're trying to keep us down. They're saying that we're stupid by making up some dumb test. The high standards…it's a waste of time."

Another said, "I think the class did better when we only had homework and classwork because we didn't have to worry about whether if I don't pass this test I'm not going to graduate. It kind of throws you off school work. Teachers are going to know what you need in life."

"I feel that without it (the higher standards) I would still be learning the stuff that I am learning now," a student said.

Return to top of page Higher standards, graduation concerns
Of the group in the room 50 percent were very concerned that the higher standards would prevent them from graduating and 40 percent were somewhat concerned. Talking about that concern, one student said, "Our class is kind of like the guinea pigs. We are getting thrown all these standards. If they want it to work out for us, they need to lower some of the standards. Like maybe not have to complete 24. Maybe if we did like 15 or 10, then every year they can slowly add on. You can't just throw a big pile of stuff on one class."

Return to top of page Higher standards, added pressure
One student said, first you have to pass the basic skills test in math and reading, now they are adding writing. And then the higher standards. They keep adding something else on. For her, she said, "It's a lot pressure." The word "pressure" was used by a lot of the students along with the word "confusion."

A Somali student who has been here for just six months said, "I think the standards are so hard because of the second language. I just moved here and I don't know the high standards in English tests."

Return to top of page Either credits or higher standards, not both
One student who favored the Basic Skills tests said, "You should have to be able to pass those basic standards test to graduate high school. Those are the necessary things that you will have to do in life." However, when it came to higher standards she said, "It is ridiculous because we should stick with the high standards or the credits. They are probably thinking they are helping us to succeed, but it is weighing us down and putting a lot of pressure on us. We are probably going to end up failing and staying behind in high school."

Another student said, "Comparing it to before, you learned more because it was more rapid. Now you focus on one thing and keep focusing on it and focusing on it and some people get tired of it because they think they we are learning the same stuff over and over again."