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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.

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