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By Mary E. Cepeda

Letter to the Guam Department of Education

Ladies and gentlemen of the board, my fellow community members, it is my honor to speak before you tonight. This address comes on the tails of distressing results from research into our school's academic success. As I perused the research concerning our school's test scores, I found a worrying disparity between Okkodo High School and other U.S. high schools. Specifically, testing data highlights key differences between our own school and Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, Massachusetts. My examination of the data, coupled with my own experience at OHS, made it clear that Okkodo High School needs to examine its academic shortcomings and implement a plan for improvement, just as Doherty Memorial High School has.

Okkodo High School measures its students' achievement by the ACT Aspire exam. For the 2015-2016 school year, results indicated that the high school's sophomore class tested in the lower half percentile. The scores were based on college readiness, with a scale from ‘ready' to ‘in need'. Of the 520-student class, 42 percent reached the ‘ready' mark on the English section of the exam. In the math section of the exam, however, a meager 2 percent of students achieved scores that would mark them as ‘ready.' Compared to the district as a whole, the sophomore class ranked above the average English score, while falling below average in math ("School Performance Report Card", 2016).

Doherty's students were measured by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) on a scale from ‘advanced' and ‘proficient' to ‘warning' and ‘failing'. For the 2016 statewide school review period, the school earned a three, ranking it in the lowest quarter of school performance within the state. It did not meet its goal of lowering the achievement gap between high-need students and other students, and it did not meet its goals to improve the success of low-needs students. Among its sophomore class, 43 percent ranked ‘proficient' in English, while only 19 percent earned the same ranking in math. Compared to the district, the sophomore class scored below average in English, while just meeting the average math score ("2016 Massachusetts School Report Card Overview Doherty High", 2016).

Though both schools fell below the 50th percentile in their test scores, data shows that Okkodo showed an increase in failing scores. Many of the score elements saw an increase in students who were ‘in need' of assistance ("School Performance Report Card", 2016). Doherty, on the other hand, saw increases in students who ranked ‘advanced' in scoring ("2016 Massachusetts School Report Card Overview Doherty High", 2016). The school's students who had ranked ‘proficient' the previous year saw improved scores.

In spite of these similarities, there are significant differences between the two schools. Our school's standards were not nearly as rigorous as those of Doherty High. Though our schools utilize different tests, there is no reason for the scoring system to be so different. However, while Okkodo's students are ranked on a basis of being ‘ready' for college ("School Performance Report Card", 2016), Doherty's students are ranked on their understanding of the material and ability to formulate questions about it ("2016 Massachusetts School Report Card Overview Doherty High", 2016). Even more worthy of note is the existence of an improvement plan. Doherty is equipped with a plan to increase their scores and improve their school environment. In spite of rigorous research through Guam's official Department of Education websites, I have yet to locate or obtain such a plan. Either such a plan exists and it is being hidden from the public, or no plan exists and students will be left with the consequences of a stagnant education. Neither of those options is acceptable.

Doherty Memorial High School outlines a plan of intense data collection combined with effective learning techniques. Students are taught by the DHS model of Decoding, Highlighting, and Stopping to examine their learning materials. There was also the implementation of the "3-Tier" instruction of augmenting Common Core curriculum with additional material in order to improve classroom performance. The school has an Early Warning Indicator in place to identify and help students who are more at risk to struggle in their studies. Peer observation, collaboration, and feedback on the new implementations was another goal. Doherty also partnered with community services such as Adopt a Student to further their achievement goals ("School Accountability Plan", 2016). Its administration constructed a concrete plan for improvement to meet their gap-narrowing and score-ranking goals. Our own Okkodo High School, on the other hand, failed to even gather the proper data necessary to target improvement. Though scoring standards similar to those of Doherty High exist, the data has not been examined to see where students fall on that standard ("School Performance Report Card", 2016). As I have previously stated, there was also no sort of improvement plan available for Okkodo High.

I recognize that, despite these scores, Okkodo High School has seen many great achievements. Our career-oriented programs such as Lodging and Management are highly successful, regularly winning awards at national competitions. The opportunity to graduate with a certificate from our local community college is a huge advantage in the workforce ("School Performance Report Card", 2016). However, this success cannot be enough. Each program can only accept a few students from each grade level every year. While amazing in their limited success, our programs have neither the funding nor the space necessary to accommodate our large student body. It seems that we have focused on the achievement of the few in favor of the progress of the many.

This emphasis on workforce education suggests that Okkodo is not preparing its students for a broad range of careers. Our four career programs are all programs geared towards work in the service and hospitality industry ("School Performance Report Card", 2016). Our focus on these programs suggests to our students a very specific career agenda. We neglect math and science to teach students the basics of working in the restaurant industry. We push aside artistic pursuits to focus on working in hotel management. Our best resources are shunted towards preparing students in certain areas while we fail to nourish their passion and creativity in others.

There are ways to increase our students' readiness for the workplace without placing all of our focus on workplace-specific programs. For example, Doherty High's implementation of student feedback to school changes teaches students to vocalize the changes they wish to see within their environment, including in a work environment. The DHS (Decode, Highlight, Stop) system of teaching helps students deconstruct and analyze problems for their best solution. Outside support teaches students to interact with and improve their communities. All of these things facilitate not only a successful working environment, but also a successful academic one.

As an Okkodo High School alumni, I have some insight into how the school prepares its students for adulthood. I can say with full confidence that my own success at college was a lucky strike – Okkodo did not prepare me to enter such a rigorous academic system, nor did it prepare my friends for entrance into the workplace Okkodo brags so heavily about.

Students have the option of structuring their classes by the "career" or the "college" oriented path. Career path students take more elective courses – within the career programs or not – to help determine their vocation. College path students take more core academic classes. The career path has proven to be a joke. Unless students can enter the tightly packed program, the career path does nothing to help students develop their future vocations.

My friends who chose the path were shuffled into simple, undemanding courses that had no place in a high school. They were placed in the lowest level math courses possible, supposedly to help them develop their careers. We observed no signs of developing careers. The so-called ‘career' courses were entire block classes dedicated to running notes every once in a while between the office and classrooms. These courses helped them pass high school. They did not help them enter college or the workforce. Students who could not enter the certification programs graduated without the major advantage of those who entered the program. Those same students lacked the academic edge of challenging courses which would have prepared them for college. Almost none of the students, career path or not, graduated with an understanding of how to apply for college at all. The focus on careers overshadowed concerns such as understanding how to apply for FAFSA.

In the year after my graduation, I encountered graduated students who could neither apply to college nor find a job. Combined with other factors, such as financial difficulties, created former students with no options. This cannot be the manner in which we send our children into the world. While the immediate cost may be large, the long-term benefits of improving our academic standing are too important to overlook.

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