SAT/ACT: Required for All Students?

SAT/ACT: Required for All Students? on ParentChat with ReginaHere’s a trend I missed (and I do this for a living): Almost half of the states and many individual school districts in other states are now requiring all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, and they are footing the bill. Perhaps equally important, they are testing the students during the school day in the students’ own school. Well, that certainly makes life easier for a lot of high school students and their families. Not having to pay for the test is one thing (without even having to get a waiver from the testing company); but not having to figure out how to register, get your child to some testing site that might be new to you both, and make sure your child arrives at the crack of dawn on a Saturday might be even better.

Some states are indeed using the SAT or ACT as the final piece of their state testing program rather than giving a state-developed test or one of the new tests designed to match the Common Core Standards, thus lessening the testing burden for high school students, many of whom would have had to take the SAT and/or ACT for college admission purposes in addition to their state’s own test. Connecticut, one of the most recent states to jump on board, will be giving the SAT this year to all of its high school juniors at no cost, but will not require a minimum SAT score to graduate.

Now, there is a lot of talk among educators at the state and local level and in higher education about whether the SAT and ACT actually measure a state’s own curriculum standards and, thus, whether the SAT or ACT could fairly be used as a measure of what students learned in their high school classes. Some argue that tests specifically developed by the state or by one of the testing companies associated with the Common Core work that many states have adopted would be the only fair assessment.

Of course, no parent would ever wonder about that because it is just a matter of common sense. Let’s take the SAT. Clearly, it measures English and mathematics skills—skills befitting a high school student who is about to graduate and, hopefully, continue his or her education at a college. Shouldn’t that be good enough as a test of a student’s capabilities—regardless of what the state curriculum standards do or don’t say?

What could be a better definition of “college-ready”—the education buzzword of the last five years—than that students can do reasonably well on a test that hundreds and hundreds of U.S. colleges insist that students take before they apply? The fact that some colleges each year add themselves to the growing list of colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT for admission (the “test-optional” colleges) does not negate the fact that many, many colleges still do require the SAT or ACT for admission. Even many of the test-optional colleges tell students to send their SAT or ACT scores if they think that the scores are a good representation of their abilities (meaning, “send your scores if they are good and you think they will help you get in”). By the way, many, many students applying to great test-optional colleges do just that.

While I am no particular fan of either the SAT or ACT, I do recognize what a hurdle it is for some kids to jump and what a relief it would be for many families to have that hurdle removed. I have seen that hurdle up close in New York City. Here is a statistic that supports the point. According to a recent report of education in 50 U.S. cities just issued by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 15 percent or fewer of all high school students took the SAT or ACT in 2011–2012 in 32 of those cities. (The report, Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, explains that we might have expected the figure to be in the 25 to 50 percent range, if we believe that most eleventh and/or twelfth graders in a high school take these college admission tests in any given year.) However you look at it, urban high school students are not taking the SAT and ACT in the numbers that we would expect to see—or hope to see—if we believe that urban students should have the best shot at attending whatever college they wish, either right away or in the first few years after high school graduation.

If you live in a state or school district that requires all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, maybe now you can see how lucky you are. If you do not live in a state or school district that requires all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, it is time to take a close look at why not:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to have the superintendent provide the numbers of juniors and seniors and the percentages of the junior and senior classes that have taken the SAT or ACT in your school district over the past five years. Ask the school board to discuss whether administering the SAT or ACT to all eleventh graders in the spring and/or all twelfth graders in the early fall would be a good idea—either to confirm students’ “college readiness” as they leave your district or to ensure that every student has the opportunity to apply to any college requiring these test scores. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study background information before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators before and/or during the meeting, including what the cost would be of providing this testing at district expense and what, if anything, might have to be given up in the budget to make such testing possible.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal to provide the numbers of juniors and seniors and the percentages of the junior and senior classes that have taken the SAT or ACT in your school over the past five years (if you have more than one high school in your district). Ask your principal to discuss how students are advised about taking the SAT and/or ACT. Are all students encouraged to take one or both of the tests? Are all students advised about how many times to take the test and when to take the test? Are all students given help in registering for the tests? Are students who qualify for fee waivers given the help they need to get those waivers? Is the high school a designated testing site? If not, why not and what would it take for the high school to become a designated testing site?

P.S. After I wrote this and before we got it posted, New York City announced that it would offer the SAT at no cost to all public high school juniors, with the test given on a school day rather than on a Saturday. Great that it’s free! Great that the kids don’t have to register! Great that it’s given on a school day! All those hurdles have now been jumped. But just offer it? Why not require it? Almost perfect, New York City. So close.

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Only One-Third of Students Are Proficient: Yikes

Only One-Third of Students Are Proficient: Yikes on ParentChat with Regina: Getting Control of What Matters in Education | parentchatwithregina.orgCould the recently released New York State test results for students in grades 3 through 8 in English language arts (ELA) and math be any worse? Well, I guess they could, but the results are plenty poor enough. Where is the exasperation, New York taxpayers? Where is the alarm that your kids aren’t learning fundamental skills, New York parents? Maybe everyone was on vacation.

You might remember that it was just last spring when record numbers of New York students “opted out” of taking the tests as families protested the new Common Core Learning Standards and/or the tests created to match them and/or the promise of using student test results to evaluate teachers. We will get to the 20 percent who opted out in a minute. They have already gotten more press than the test results.

Here is some background you will need (especially you readers who are outside of New York State). Results on the new New York State tests—first given in 2013 and designed to measure the new Common Core Learning Standards, adopted in 2011—are reported according to these achievement levels with regard to the Standards:

  • Level 4—The student excels.
  • Level 3—The student is proficient.
  • Level 2—The student is partially proficient.
  • Level 1—The student is well below proficient.

The State is hoping for 3’s and 4’s, which indicate that the student is on track to score at a college-ready and career-ready achievement level when it comes time for the high school Common Core Regents Exams. Parents and other taxpayers, you should be hoping for 3’s and 4’s, too.

So, How Bad Was It in ELA?

About 31 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored a 3 or 4 (with a range across the grades from about 29 percent to almost 35 percent). That 31 percent figure has been virtually the same for all three years of testing with the new tests. Just 31 percent of elementary and middle school students are proficient in reading and writing skills statewide. In case you think it is New York City’s fault, it’s not. About 30 percent of New York City students scored a 3 or 4 across grades 3 through 8. Wow.

It is time for the other shoe to drop: What percent of New York State students scored a 1—meaning that they are well below proficient? The answer is almost 34 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 (with a range across the grades from about 30 percent to almost 38 percent). Again, New York City scores are just about the same.

So, here’s the summary: About a third of New York State students are proficient or better (the 3’ and 4’s), about a third are partially proficient (the 2’s), and about a third are well below proficient (the 1’s). That’s also true for New York City students. Who thinks that is okay?

Maybe Math Was Great?

About 38 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored a 3 or 4 (with a range across grades 3 through 7 from about 35 percent to about 43 percent—and with an oddly low 22 percent in grade 8, likely caused by the fact that the many of the best math students in eighth grade were accelerated into Algebra and took the high school Regents Examination rather than this grade 8 test). That 38 percent figure has indeed improved from the 31 percent figure we started with in 2013. Again, New York City students in grades 3 through 8 are not far behind, with 35 percent scoring a 3 or 4.

So, what percent of New York State students scored a 1—well below proficient? The answer is about 31 percent across grades 3 through 8 (with a range from about 27 percent to almost 34 percent, with an oddly high approximately 40 percent in grade 8, again likely due to the removal of the best math students who did not take this test). Almost 34 percent of New York City students in grades 3 though 8 scored a 1.

This is it in a nutshell, and it is a familiar story: Just over a third of New York State students are proficient or better (the 3’ and 4’s), just under a third are partially proficient (the 2’s), and just under a third are well below proficient (the 1’s). New York City students’ results are quite similar. Compared to the ELA results, you ask? The results are ever so slightly better in math and would likely have been a bit better if the best eighth grade math students (who were accelerated into Algebra and took the Algebra Regents Examination) had been tested with this test instead.

What About Black and Hispanic Students?

It’s not good news. This year, about 40 percent of white students scored a 3 or 4 on the ELA tests, and about 50 percent of white students scored a 3 or 4 on the math tests. The figures for black and Hispanic students were about 20 percentage points lower than white students. On the math tests, the differences were about 25 percentage points. That’s what anyone would call a huge achievement gap.

Years ago, my nonprofit organization was working in Cleveland, then under Court-ordered desegregation. The Federal District Court had told the Cleveland Public Schools that the school district would be under Court order until the reading scores of black and white students in grades 1 though 9 were equal. It seemed like a tall order then—though an essential one. Unfortunately, it seems like a tall order today in New York State some 30 years later.

Let’s Blame the New Harder Tests—Not

Various officials have remarked that the new tests designed to match the new Common Core Learning Standards are harder than the old New York State tests designed to match the old New York State Standards. There might be some truth to that.

However, the third grade test still looks about like a third grade test. It’s doesn’t look like a sixth grade test given to third graders. Read the questions that New York State released to the public for yourself. Yes, you might find some that seem too hard or confusing or unfair in some way. (I can tell you from lots of personal experience that it is really hard to write thousands of perfect test questions.) But, at the end of the day, the tests are going to seem reasonable to you. After all, no one who was writing them wanted to see thousands of children fail.

So, I don’t think we can blame the new harder tests. Try this: Forget how students did on the older and perhaps easier New York State tests and consider only how they are doing now. How do you feel about a third of students being proficient or excelling, a third being partially proficient, and a third being well below proficient? That’s the question you have to answer.

By the way, the students who opted out and did not take the tests last spring were more likely to have scored a 1 or 2 back in 2014, according to New York State Education Department data. Oh, no. If lots of those students had taken the tests, the results might have been even worse.

As we begin another school year, it is time to address any concerns you have about New York State testing, and an honest conversation about the results is a great way to start:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the New York State results in ELA and in math in grades 3 through 8 and to discuss how your school district’s results compared to the State results. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study the results before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators and teachers before and/or during the meeting. Listen for the administrators to explain the results in a way that makes sense to you—not explain away the results as if they weren’t legitimate.
  • Elementary and middle school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss your school’s results with parents. Are they satisfied with the results? If not, what changes are taking place to improve the results? Tell them whether you are satisfied with the results.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss the eighth grade test scores of the new ninth grade class and to discuss what they are doing to help incoming students who do not have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in high school courses.

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“Don’t Know Much About History…”

"Don't Know Much About History..." | ParentChat with Regina | parentchatwithregina.orgEighth grade students in the U.S. “don’t know much about history.” They “don’t know much about geography,” either. When Sam Cooke sang those memorable words in 1960, he wasn’t looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results released last spring. But in 2015, his words are a grim reality. By the way, our eighth graders also don’t know much about civics, in case you were wondering.

Here’s what I don’t get: There was no national furor when the test results were released. The story was covered in some national media publications and in some education-related publications in print and online. Where was the outraged public reaction I would have expected or, rather, hoped for? Where were you, parents?

Here is some background. NAEP (pronounced nape) tests a nationwide sample of U.S. students to find out what they have learned in various school subjects. Some school subjects have been tested since 1969, some subjects were added later, and more subjects are still being added. Some exams are given more often than others—every two years, for example, instead of every four years. Exams have traditionally been given in grades 4, 8, and 12. Known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP exams are administered, according to federal law, by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education. Originally a project of the highly respected Education Commission of the States, the NAEP exams have always had a good reputation.

NAEP results are reported by these achievement levels (the quotations are from NAEP’s own glossary):

  • Advanced—the highest level, indicating “superior performance” in the subject at that grade level
  • Proficient—the middle level, indicating “solid academic performance” and “competency over challenging subject matter” in the subject at that grade level
  • Basic—the lowest level, indicating “partial mastery” of the knowledge and skills in the subject at that grade level
  • Below Basic—really a lack-of-achievement level, indicating scores so low that students could not even get onto the first rung of NAEP’s three-rung achievement ladder

In 2014, NAEP tested about 29,000 eighth grade students in a representative sample of public and private schools nationwide. Each student took only one of the social studies exams: U.S. history, geography (U.S. and world geography), or civics. Here are the results, shown as the percent of students scoring at each level:

U.S. History

  • Advanced—1 %
  • Proficient—17 %
  • Basic—53 %
  • Below Basic—29 %

Geography

  • Advanced—3 %
  • Proficient—24 %
  • Basic—48 %
  • Below Basic—25 %

Civics

  • Advanced—2 %
  • Proficient—22 %
  • Basic—51 %
  • Below Basic—26 %

You can add up and report these results any way you want to, trying to put a positive spin on them, but the bottom line is this: About 50 percent of eighth graders have only partial mastery of social studies subject matter, and about 25 percent of eighth graders don’t even have that. Just a tiny fraction of eighth graders really knocked the ball out of the park.

You can look at these results broken down by students’ racial/ethnic background, and you can look at these results compared to the results from tests given in earlier years. But there is really not much good news there, either. The overall results are so poor, that breaking them down to look for some small piece of good news misses the point.

Our first inclination when test results are poor is often to blame the test. I don’t believe you should do that here. I am inclined to believe that the test results are one reasonable portrait of what our kids know—or, in this case, don’t know.

Some people have said that U.S. history and geography and civics NAEP scores are not what they should be because of the recent focus on the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts and because of the recent enthusiastic support for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) initiatives from a host of experts, teachers, professors, business leaders, and politicians. Of course, the NAEP scores on these exams weren’t any better in 2010, the last time the three exams were given. Oh, and the geography scores haven’t improved at all since that exam was first given in 1994.

So, is social studies the least valued of the core academic subjects? Should it be? Have you had this discussion in your local schools, parents? Has your school board had this discussion with your local administrators? If you all have decided that U.S. history and geography and civics are not that important for students to learn, then you would think about these NAEP scores quite differently. Maybe you all made that decision, and I just missed it.

With the beginning of a new school year, it is a particularly good time to have these discussions about what matters—because nothing matters more than what your kids are learning in their classrooms:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the NAEP results in U.S. history, geography, and civics and to discuss what they should mean for your school district. (This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study the results before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators and teachers before and/or during the meeting.)
  • Elementary school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers what they are doing to give students the foundation knowledge and skills they need to succeed in middle school social studies classes.
  • Middle school parents: Ask your principal and social studies teachers what they think about the NAEP results and whether social studies teaching and learning in your school need to improve.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal and social studies teachers what they are doing to help students learn the knowledge and skills they are already missing and what they will do to try to hit the standards being tested by the twelfth grade exams—that is, if you think they matter.

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