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EBR scale change path to inferior education

A clash between two opposing worldviews regarding education, as a chore for the citizen to complete to allow him to function in the world as a necessary condition to pursue what he wants or as a transformative experience that informs one throughout life, confronts the East Baton Rouge Parish School System through the issue of grade point averages for extracurricular activity participation in high school.

This month, at the urging of its new superintendent Warren Drake, the School Board plans to lower the GPA requirement indicative of a ‘C’ average currently at 2.0-3.0 by a half-point. This would mean, according to Louisiana High School Athletic Association standards that require that all participating athletes maintain a C average, that students earning as low as an overall 1.5 GPA would be eligible to play organized sports (this would equate, on the eight-point scale used in schools, to an average score of 76 percent as opposed to the 80 percent standard at present). Only the Caddo and Jefferson Parish districts would still define the lowest boundary for a C average as 2.0.

Drake, a former coach, said he did not consult research on the impact of what more generally are called “no pass no play” laws on improving student academic performance and thereby graduation rates but that his impressions over the years are that increased ability to participate in extracurricular activities engages more students, where research he has noted shows students who do this perform academically better. In other words, he believes participation drives willingness to attend school and to progress to graduation, and to make participation too restrictive discourages some students to the point of leaving school.

The alternative view that argues for higher standards says to make standards too low provides inadequate encouragement for academic achievement. In other words, extracurricular participation acts as a reward earned for doing better than below mediocre work and can pull students up from that, both by acting as a carrot to continue to elicit adequate performance from those intelligent and organized enough to do it and by serving as a corrective to those who don’t, by taking away the many extra hours a week extracurricular activities that students could spend and instead leaving those as a resource to channel into extra study in the hopes of regaining eligibility. Greater attention to studies then translates into a higher chance of graduating.

Thus, the two views are incompatible. Drake’s maintains that higher standards discourage too many students from staying in school and graduating as they cannot attain them, while his opposition argues that too low of standards by negating use of a motivational tool inadequately encourages students to perform well enough to graduate. Both claim their approach increases the chances of graduation.

To determine which argument has more credibility, both conceptual and evaluative dimensions of these must be explored. Starting with the former, note that both approaches rely upon participation as a motivational tool, but with different objects. Drake’s motivates students to stay interested in school, with the assumption that this increases graduation chances.

But this view ignores a harsh reality. To graduate high school in Louisiana, one must pass a certain number and kind of classes. Of course, internally to a high school, standards generally could be lowered to allow the most floundering of students to score adequately enough on very undemanding assessments. However, the fact that students must score adequately enough on enough state-administered end of course tests and that schools and districts get graded for accountability purposes on these ameliorates the incentive to lower standards.

Thus, if a school wants as many of its students to graduate as possible, it has the incentive to create stimulants for students to pass these exams – including raising standards to participate in extracurricular activity, relying on the different motivation of using a higher standard to increase graduation chances. As opposed to Drake’s assumption, this does not assume that a student can trundle along at a 1.5 GPA and have just the fact of staying in school necessarily taking care of adequate end of course exam scores for all, but that a higher GPA ensures the student just doesn’t float along and that some will need this additional motivation of ability to participate to pass these exams, so more will do so than under the lower standard.

Evaluating the policy corroborates this view. Not a lot of research is out there, and sometimes appears contradictory, but the most recent and comprehensive of it demonstrates “no pass no play” generally has an overall positive impact on graduation rates  It may vary by racial/ethnic group (appearing to work positively for blacks but negatively on Hispanics) or by gender (women respond more positively), and its impact varies by its implementation, but on the whole the policy has more positive than negative outcomes.

Yet an implementation issue does loom large in the policy’s ability to succeed. As Drake points out, almost no districts use the 2.0 standard, with none around his, nor do private schools have to follow it. Thus, students that might be helped by it, who need the additional motivation in order to graduate, can escape from more demanding districts to other nearby systems or non-public schools to avoid it and thereby reducing the policy’s effectiveness for the more demanding system.

This can be avoided by the state passing a law or promulgating a regulation stating that certain scores must be met on certain exams for eligibility for extracurricular participation. For example, mandates could be created that entering freshmen must have scored at the “basic” level on their LEAP tests, or that sophomores must score “fair” on their English II end of course exam, and so on, in order to participate. This would moot gamesmanship concerning the defining of letter grades.

In a larger sense, the conflict represents a tussle between two views of education’s purpose. Behind Drake’s lies the thought by many that it is something they must endure to become competent enough to do what they really want, such as play football for money, get a job they tolerate that earns enough so they can enjoy your weekends and/or raise a family, or to put them in a school or work situation commensurate to a desired extra strategy from nubility. For these people, it’s just putting up with something that in order to check off a box along the way to achieving other aspirations.

That lowest common denominator conceptualization isn’t what it should be. Education should prompt a desire to continue to learn throughout life, even if only for the instrumental reason of increasing remuneration. Better, wanting to keep educating yourself, whether formally, after leaving high school can bring so many other benefits to life, among them (besides boosting one’s earning potential or fulfilling career aspirations) promoting a better understanding the world, informing relationships with others, and improving self-awareness and knowledge of oneself. And the lower you make its standards, the less likely it is secondary education will prompt this attitude to blossom among students.

Education for education’s sake historically has not been valued in Louisiana. Only indirectly does the value of education relate to the resources devoted to it; rather, its quality is defined by presence of an attitude in students that values knowledge acquisition and critical thinking abilities. Naturally, a significant portion of the population won’t think it of this way, and this proportion seems higher in the state more than in most if not all others. Policy-makers are derelict if they fail to encourage the realization of education as good unto itself, as Drake is here and if elected officials accede to his view.

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