DOWNEY - The task of high school education is never an easy thing. This is true at the Downey Unified School District as anywhere else.Here, following state guidelines, students have to be taught according to a standards-based curriculum, using appropriate textbooks. Their progress has to be regularly assessed by presumably well-trained teachers and an instructional staff that must be alert to ever morphing student needs and attitudes, not to mention class requirements. To accomplish all this, classrooms and campuses are organized and made safe, adequate services are made available, and resources put to good and effective use. These of course apply to all the students in the district. Further, nobody need be reminded of the anxiety-riddled budget process stakeholders have had to undergo in recent months. The district's one overriding goal? Student success-either in terms of a student's earning a high school diploma or one's readiness for college or one's capability to pursue any worthwhile alternative career choice. There are a number of ways to measure student achievement. One is the Standardized Testing and Report (STAR) program, which tests student achievement vs. content standards. Another is the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) for Grades 10, 11, and 12, as well as Adult School; this is required for graduation. A third is graduation rates, of which we have some statistics in a report provided by Dr. Sara Cairns, DUSD Director of Secondary Education. Cairns said the combined Downey High, Warren High, and Columbus High graduation rate for 2008-09 has been tentatively set at 92 percent. These figures are cause for rejoicing. These test results and student performance evaluations are important elements that find their way into the state's Academic Performance Indicator (API) report (the state's assessment system) and the federally-administered Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) report-both yardsticks for accountability, both bases for funding. Judging by past reports, DUSD has invariably done well by these standards. "We want our kids to succeed," said Cairns. "Every student should be successful." Historically, states have set their own educational standards and accountability systems, with California one of three states setting the pace. Thus, Algebra I became a requirement in Grade 8 instead of being part of the traditional Grade 9 curriculum. This has called for accelerated learning programs and teacher reorientation. There are other issues that need to be addressed. For example, in any given year about 1,000 students-across the K-12 spectrum-enter and exit the district. This calls for tracking the comings and goings, identifying the 'drop-outs' vs. the 'transients'. "The district has been relentless in tracking this traffic," said Cairns. "Clerical errors and the like, in this and other respects, have been unavoidable." The matter of No Child Left Behind is familiar to all. NCLB mandates that every student-whether an English Learner or a Special Ed student or whatever-attain the proficient level by the year 2014 (student scores are labeled far below basic, below basic, basic, and the API- and AYP-qualifying proficient and advanced: such are the high standards adopted in California!). Cairns said that in a related development, presumably cognizant of the difficulties such stringent standards have caused, the governor has waived the CAHSEE requirement for Special Ed students starting in 2010. Three years ago, DUSD was one of three districts chosen to use the electronic-driven California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) pilot project, for data reporting purposes. It is anticipated that all districts in the state will join the system online by Aug. 31. By the same token, Cairns said President Obama is leaning towards a national content standards system, which signals curriculum standardization. Whether this will gain full traction, or whether a little tweaking here and there is all that will be involved, is a subject of debate. What is not subject to debate is student achievement as the holy grail of high school education. As Cairns said, "We're doing good, but we can always do better."
********** Published: August 7, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 16