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Truman's principal starts year by checking middle schools' work

Experience has taught Sana Nasser not to take her incoming ninth-graders’ test scores at face value.

Nasser is the principal of Harry S. Truman High School, one of the Bronx’s few remaining comprehensive high schools. Each fall, she requires new freshmen to take diagnostic exams that test their math and writing skills.

The students’ results rarely correlate with their scores on the state’s eighth-grade reading and math tests, Nasser said.

The tests are just one component of Nasser’s strategy for helping Truman’s teachers to understand their students’ needs by the end of the first week of ninth-grade. She also collects reams of data from the city about each student’s performance and attendance records and compares them to the diagnostics’ results.

Nasser said the early efforts have been key to keeping Truman above water even as other large Bronx high schools have struggled to stay afloat with many students entering below grade level. Truman regularly pulls B’s on its city progress reports and has a four-year graduation rate that’s right around the city average.

The school-wide diagnostic exams, which Truman’s math and English teachers create, accomplish on a vast scale what many teachers do at the beginning of the year: assess their students’ skills, so they don’t waste time teaching material that students already know or can’t handle.

By making the assessments consistent for every incoming student, Nasser said she can get a clearer picture of the class as a whole — how students stack up against each other, and how skill gaps vary by middle school. Some schools, she said, routinely send students whose scores seem to be inflated.

“There’s been a lot of dialogue between me and the middle schools, that you know, your level 3 is not truly a level 3,” Nasser said.

Nasser began giving diagnostic exams at Truman’s feeder middle schools a decade ago when she became principal. But the explosion of school choice means she now waits until students start school in the fall.

The exams test students’ writing skills and ability to solve a handful of math problems aligned to eighth-grade learning standards. Those standards include being able to write mathematical proofs and to recognize and apply math to outside subjects.

The writing prompts range from asking students to make an argument about a real-world issue, such as the use of cell phones in schools, to asking them to describe a life-changing personal experience. The first question examines students’ ability to argue in writing — an important part of the new Common Core learning standards — while the other tests their ability to construct a narrative and reflect on their own experiences.

When students’ essays are not up to par, Nasser sends them to a remedial literacy class called Study Skills on top of their regular ninth-grade English class.

“We’re finding the kids are coming in with very poor skills, stuff they should have had in the fourth, fifth, sixth grades,” she said. “I need a teacher to build their skills up while the content teacher is building their content knowledge.”

Nasser next turns her attention to the students’ attendance. On a recent June morning, she sat in her office overlooking Co-Op City and reviewed spreadsheets full of middle school attendance records.

“I [arrange them] by district and by school, to see how many kids they’re sending me,” she said, pointing at a chart.

One student who performed at a level 2 had been absent from eighth more than 20 days. A cluster of four students, all coming from a different middle school, had missed more than 40 days of class last year.

“The number of days the student attends middle school is paramount. How are they getting promoted? This has been my issue for 14 years,” she said. “I always said it doesn’t matter who you send me in terms of their academic preparation. You can give me a level 1 — I will move him — but I cannot move even a level 3 if he’s going to be absent 60-plus days from school.”

Last year’s writing prompts are below, followed by the math test that new Truman students were required to take.

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