I recently bumped into a former student of mine outside the high-poverty public high school where I used to teach math. Quaniesha, as I’ll call her, was on her way home, and I was on my way in for the SAT tutoring sessions I hold with athletes trying to become “NCAA-eligible” so they can accept sports scholarships.
Quaniesha feigned anger as we walked past the school’s metal detectors: “Why you do me like that, Doc? I gotta start Credit Recovery next week.” She was smiling and knew full well how our back-and-forth was going to go.
She’d say I failed her in math. Then I’d say no, you failed yourself. She’d say I was a bad teacher. Then I’d ask her how often she had come to class, done her homework, or even brought her notebook and done the class work rather than cursed and fought and joked around.
Once I invited her mother to school for a ceremony celebrating Quaniesha’s award as “improved student of the week,” but her mother said she couldn’t come because she—the 30-year-old mother of the 15-year-old student—had been barred from the school for cursing and fighting with security guards.
But if Quaniesha was feigning anger, I was really angry, because the Credit Recovery program she was starting is a fraud to which I alerted the chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools last summer in a memo and at a one-on-one meeting.
In Credit Recovery, students who have failed a semester-long course attend a special class after school for a few weeks and magically earn credit for it—without taking a mastery exam. It is a big reason why the 50% of high-poverty, public-school students who actually graduate from high school are generally helpless before a college curriculum.
The dirty little secret of American education is that not only do half of students in high-poverty high schools drop out, but most of those who graduate—as I found in my two years teaching and testing students—operate at about the fifth-grade level in academics, organization and behavior. These graduates must then take noncredit remedial courses should they try to go to college.
Of my ninth-graders last year, only 10% were present in class more than three days a week, and a full 50% attended two days a week or fewer. When they did attend, the chronically absent did virtually none of the class work or homework. As a result, I thought it remarkable that a mere 68% of my ninth-graders failed—which, by the way, was typical across the ninth grade in the math department.
Instead of insisting that students retake failed courses and actually work, the school system allows students to take Credit Recovery or equally bogus summer-school courses. Thus students “age-out” of middle school with second-grade skills and “D-out” of high-school courses they rarely attend.
That explains why my so-called precalculus class of seniors last year entered with an average fourth-grade math level, just like my freshmen: They had learned little in the previous three years while “passing” algebra I, geometry and algebra II/trigonometry.
Clearly, if students enter high school with elementary-school skills, graduation is a long shot and college is a mirage. Schools should drop the fraud of pretending they are doing grade-level work. Instead, schools should rework their reading and math curricula to prepare them for trades that can support a family, such as being a bricklayer, hairdresser, plumber, nurse’s assistant or computer technician.
From my experience, 80% of high-poverty high-school freshmen are at elementary-school level, which includes the 50% who are going to drop out. The remaining 20% who are within striking distance of high-school standards should have the option to remain in the academic track. These well-behaved and well-prepared students have been cheated of most of their learning time throughout their school careers by the disruption of the disaffected, and they can probably get to grade level—and to college—if the disruption ends.
In any case, when the majority of high-poverty high-school students are within two years of grade level in their skills, then we can try the “college is for everyone” thing again. For now, let’s end the fraud of Credit Recovery so students can be taught where they truly are, not at the level where we pretend they are.
Mr. Rossiter is an adjunct professor at American University and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
A version of this article appeared December 1, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How Washington, D.C., Schools Cheat Their Students Twice.