A Whirlwind Tour of Award-Winning Schools

Last week I traveled to Pass Christian, Miss., to conduct a webinar with the leaders of the district to talk about the kinds of things that help move a district forward.

The things they talked about are very similar to what school leaders say when they talk about what moves a school forward — a laser-like focus on what kids need to know and be able to do and a commitment to building the culture and climate that allows kids to learn. (To read more about the webinar, see my column this week in Huffington Post, or you can go straight to the webinar here.)

After the webinar, I was joined by Ed Trust’s Sonja Brookins Santelises, vice president for policy and practice, for a quick, two-day trip I called the “Southern Swing” to drop into three schools that in the past have won Ed Trust’s Dispelling the Myth Award — Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in New Orleans, La., as well as Calcedeaver and George Hall elementary schools in Mobile, Ala.

They are all doing fabulous work for kids, and I was glad to learn that two of the schools — Bethune and Calcedeaver — are looking forward to moving to new buildings in the next year or two. Bethune is in an old building with tall windows and creaky wooden floors. I love its old-fashioned vibe, but so do legions of termites that are eating it up, window ledge by window ledge. New Orleans is building a new building to house the children of Bethune.

Calcedeaver is currently in one of the worst physical plants I’ve ever seen for a school. It has a tidy, little brick building where the younger kids are, but the older kids are in a series of bunker-like buildings and deteriorating trailers. “I’m just glad the kids won’t have to use these bathrooms anymore,” Susan Jill Dickinson, the principal said, as she showed me a grim tiled cell.

The district is finally building a new school down the road; it will be a big change to have all the classes and bathrooms in one building, but the kids at Calcedeaver will have a clear demonstration that the people of Mobile County believe in their future enough to invest in the present.

What Do the SAT Test Specifications Tell Us?

The College Board seems to be following through on its stated desire to make the redesigned SAT test more meaningful and reflective of the knowledge and skills students should be learning in high school. The level of detail and transparency provided in yesterday’s release is a big change from the old test, which was often perceived as unfair and susceptible to gaming and test-prep, giving some students an advantage over others.

The test specifications for the SAT Reading Test include:

  • The total number of questions, broken down by category: words in context, command of evidence, analysis in history, and analysis in science.
  • Number of passages, with word count and passage content, as well as text complexity for each
  • Number of graphics
  • Descriptions of the skills that will be assessed
  • Example test questions for each of the skills

These details and example items demystify the test and clearly articulate the kinds of learning activities that will help prepare students. In the past, students tried to improve their scores by memorizing arcane vocabulary lists and learning how to identify distractor responses to guess the right answer — and only those with access to (and money for) expensive test-prep could do so.

This level of detail is also provided for the Writing and Language Test and the Math Test. In addition to algebra, problem-solving, and passport to advanced math, “Additional Topics in Math” will be included on the math test. This means that some geometry, trigonometry, and the Pythagorean theorem are making their way back onto the assessment. They are not a large portion of the test (10 percent), but they are a change from the original information provided and a signal from College Board about what type of high school math is necessary to be college-ready.

Another significant step is a change to the score report that will be given to students with the redesigned test. For the first time, in addition to the test composite and domain scores, a score profile articulating a student’s strengths and weaknesses on the core skills assessed will be provided to students. For example, a student might be strong in problem-solving and data analysis, but weak in the core algebra skills, directing them to the learning they need to focus on to improve their college readiness.

One note of caution that warrants continued attention: The SAT is a norm-referenced test and, as such, is intended to rank and differentiate students (think: bell curve, with most students falling around the average and few earning perfect scores or landing at the bottom of the scale). As test development continues, it will be important to watch how College Board balances its commitment to “improving the ability of the test to predict college success” — which, in the past, meant tricky questions that only a few students could get right — while also having it reflect “the best of high school courses” — which suggests all students should be able to do well if they are provided the right learning opportunities.

Georgia State Shows the Way in Student Success

Below is the second in a four-part series exploring how high-performing colleges and universities use data to improve student retention and graduation rates. Detailed lessons from eight institutions are shared in our higher education practice guide. This series highlights how some of those colleges have made progress and how others can follow their example to increase student success.

Enough hemming and hawing from the higher education community about President Obama’s college ratings plan. The data and research make clear there are colleges and universities that excel in helping students to graduation, and there are colleges and universities that hinder, if not harm, students with similar characteristics on their way toward a degree. Continue reading

Improving Higher Ed Outcomes Starts With Smart Data

Below is the first in a four-part series exploring how high-performing colleges and universities use data to improve student retention and graduation rates. Detailed lessons from eight institutions are shared in our higher education practice guide. This series highlights how some of those colleges have made progress and how others can follow their example to increase student success.

I recently travelled to Lexington, Ky., for a retreat and planning session of chief academic officers from the states’ public colleges and universities. The Kentucky public colleges have increased their graduation rates significantly in recent years — up 7 points (to 51 percent) since 2005. Likewise, the rate for transfer students has jumped 12 points to 65 percent.

But these public institutions, like the vast majority of colleges nationwide, see low-income students and students of color graduating at lower rates than their peers. It’s a problem plaguing many colleges, and these gaps in degree completion continue to persist despite the efforts of the campus leaders at the Kentucky meeting. Continue reading

#AccessMeans Opportunity for All Students

A national social media campaign is showing that, while sometimes tagged as lazy, this generation of millennials — especially those of color — are breaking down barriers and dispelling myths that have plagued their communities for years. In the past decade, the percentage of black students going to college has gone up 63 percent; for Latinos, it’s up 38 percent. (And did you hear about Kwasi Enin, the first-generation American who got into all eight Ivys this year?) Continue reading

Gainful Rule Is Exactly What Students of Color Need

Enough with the argument that the proposed gainful employment regulation is a disservice to black, brown, and low-income students. What the National Black Chamber of Commerce has billed as unfairly targeting students of color is, in reality, an opportunity to better the institutions that serve them. The regulation would finally develop minimum standards for cost and quality for thousands of career education programs, many of which leave students hugely underprepared for work and in a deep hole of debt that is almost impossible to climb out of.

A majority of career education programs at for-profit colleges — 72 percent — produce graduates earning less on average than high school dropouts. That’s a lot of African American, Latino, and low-income students who are being poorly served by programs that promise to prepare them for “gainful employment in a recognized career.” The department’s new rule would ensure that students who are taking on this much debt are also prepared to find work so they can reasonably pay off their debt. If not, the career education programs that fail to prepare students for gainful employment and show no improvement would eventually lose their eligibility to receive federal financial aid. Continue reading

Less Testing Is Not the Answer

Lumped in with the controversy around the Common Core State Standards is an anti-testing sentiment that fails to understand the repercussions of eliminating useful, regular feedback about students’ progress. From anecdotal stories of parents pulling their children out of school during testing to a bill pending in Congress that would severely limit the regularity of assessments, the anti-testing movement might sound loud, but it represents just about one-quarter of parents.

Other parents — like this Portland, Ore., mother — want standardized feedback on their child’s academic progress. But the bill in Congress, sponsored by Reps. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), seeks to undo that by reducing the number of federally mandated tests to only one per grade span (meaning one test each in elementary, middle, and high school). The anti-testing movement might think this sounds good, but in practice, it could damage transparency in student achievement. Continue reading

It’s Not All Rosy in PISA Problem-Solving Data

The conversation around the new data from the Programme for International Student Assessment on students’ problem-solving abilities has demonstrated, once again, how overall averages can paint a too–rosy picture by masking serious gaps between groups.

Overall, American 15-year-olds perform above the international average on problem-solving, are less likely to be low performers than their peers, and are especially strong on interactive tasks. Given other PISA data showing that U.S. teens have average reading and science skills and below-average math skills, these findings are encouraging.

But here’s what few are discussing: Continue reading