First Person

All Of This … For That?

The scores are in.

After our college prep program and partner high school collaborated on a relatively robust effort to prepare our juniors for the January SAT, we recently received our students’ results.

Let me put it this way — our students are to the SAT what Congress is to fiscal responsibility.

After months of regular preparation, multiple, full-length practice tests and a coordinated campaign to ensure attendance, our students averaged 351 on critical reading and 371 on math, which earns them an average overall score of 722. In other words, despite all of our efforts, which represented a ramped-up approach as compared to previous years, our scores were as dismal as ever.

There is a consolation prize — the get-out-the-student effort resulted in a 28-percent increase in attendance, to 95 percent — but we were expecting much more of a bump in the scores.

This year’s crop of juniors is a promising bunch, overall, with higher rates of academic and civic engagement and greater college-going interest than peers from recent years (one of their teachers refers to them as the “golden class”). While their skills are still several years behind grade level, they are, on average, the highest-performing grade in the school. And yet — 722.

To add insult to injury, it appears the students who tried the hardest improved the least. Over the course of our preparation period between the October PSAT and the January SAT, we offered three, optional, full-length practice exams on Saturday mornings. Among the students who took one, two or three practice exams, the group that took advantage of all three opportunities had the lowest average score; this group also grew the least from the October PSAT to the January SAT. Overall, the group of students who took three practice exams scored only 14 points higher — math and critical reading combined — than the students who did not take any practice exams.

The highest score on any section was 510; the lowest was 200. The student in line to be valedictorian earned 920.

Is there value in having students rehearse, regardless of outcome? Surely. Does this outcome feel like we were banging our head against the wall? Absolutely.

Despair aside, I believe there are at least two, interrelated lessons worth taking away from this experience.

One, skills trump all. Without basic know-how, there is no foundation to build on. When students are struggling to define a prime number in the week before the test, as some of ours were, trouble is brewing.

Two, start early. Investing the students in the SAT is a time-consuming prerequisite. In order to then remediate skills and apply test-taking strategies, preparation must begin in the ninth or 10th grade.

That said, these results give me pause. At this juncture in my students’ academic progression, should I accept the situation for what it is or should I still aspire for more? Under the former criteria, I would acknowledge that the majority of our previous graduating classes have attended public community colleges, which do not require SAT scores for admissions. A small percentage attends test-optional colleges. As such, would the students’ time and our program’s resources be better spent doing more basic remediation?

Under the latter criteria, however, we continue to believe that significant growth is possible and worthy of the required resources. At the very least, higher SAT scores open more admission and scholarship doors.

Overall, I believe the preferred approach would be skill-based, starting in the underclassmen years, integrated into the core English and math classes and supplemented by test-taking strategies from the college prep program.

For now, we’ll continue to forge ahead with plans for another round of SAT prep, though modified, commencing soon. In the meanwhile, I would love to hear of promising strategies and approaches from peers working in similar predicaments.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.