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SAT Angst

Do you know that feeling of excitement-turned-nervousness, that rumbling in your gut before you take your driver’s license test, that fluttering before your blind date shows up or the results of your pregnancy test appear?

As the novice director of a college prep program in a high school with paralyzingly low SAT scores historically — between 660-720 on math and critical reading combined — and as someone who threw the sink at trying to move those numbers skyward, that’s how I am feeling today, when we find out the results of our students’ Jan. 22 SAT exam.

The decision to go all-out on SAT prep was not easy — on average, our 11th-graders read two to three years below grade level, and I considered whether their time (and our program’s money) would be better spent focusing on remedial skills than learning test-taking strategies and far-flung vocabulary words.

Yet the series of events that unfolded once I committed to sustained SAT prep and the challenges we subsequently encountered encompass larger themes present in the current state of urban, public schools that serve low-income students. Issues of differentiation, competency, fairness, accountability and ownership all came up in our preparation, and they will be issues I return to in future months in “The College Conundrum,” a biweekly survey of the landscape from my perch as a college prep program director at a small, traditional public high school in the South Bronx.

The prep we eventually provided was dictated by — surprise! — money, as one quote we received was three times the price of the other. We went with the less expensive option, but even this option was only made possible by the largesse of a private donor.

In any case, twice a week, for the 12 weeks leading up to the Jan. 22 SAT administration, all but two 11th-graders received prep that alternately focused on critical reading and math practice problems. (The two students who did not participate were clear that they did not wish to attend college, and therefore did not want to or need to attend a SAT prep course.) At the beginning, middle, and end of the twelve weeks, we offered students optional, full-length practice tests on Saturday mornings. More than half of the 11th-grade class took at least one such test — and a third took two or more.

The practice tests and other actions were driven by an education version of realpolitik. Once I committed to prep, my locus of control did not include substantial skill remediation. Rather, I could make the most of what the students were working with, and I therefore focused on periphery factors such as students’ endurance and pacing — hence the full-length practice tests — and logistical issues.

We ordered “Good luck” banners and posted them in the hallway after teachers scribbled encouraging messages. We distributed individualized packets that included an admission ticket, handwritten “good luck” note, public transportation voucher, list of peers’ testing sites, calculator, two sharpened pencils, photo ID reminder, and public transit directions that would get a student from home to his/her testing site before 7:30 a.m. (thanks, Google Maps).

The morning of the exam, a coordinated effort among college prep staff and school teachers commenced at 5:30 a.m. to ensure all students were up and en route to their various testing sites. We followed an initial wake-up call or text message — the students listed their preference and contact information during a previous class — with a confirmation call.

Crazy? Perhaps. Did we help our students? In a short-term sense, absolutely. Last year, 40 of 59 students (67 percent) failed to show up for their first sitting of the SAT, thereby wasting one of two possible fee waivers. This year, 57 of 60 students — 95 percent — actually took the test.

Looking longer-term, I am less convinced that my decision to teach SAT prep instead of skills remediation was most beneficial for our students, or that my plan to contact each students’ home helped them become more self-reliant and mature. The arrival of scores today could sway my feelings, of course, though my frustration with the SAT and with the quality of the students’ previous education will endure.

But I digress. For now, cross your fingers, please. I’ll share my students’ scores and my own further thoughts soon.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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