First Person

Ask an Expert: Coping with CSAP stress.

Q. My fourth grade daughter seems really stressed out about CSAPs. She says her school could get shut down if the students don’t do well. What can I do to help her not get so stressed about these tests?

A. There are several things you can do in the short term about Colorado Student Assessment Program-related stress. Here are some tips:

  • Test time at school is a great time for extra cuddle time at home.
  • Take time to talk and listen.  As you listen, you might tease out what else is going on in your daughter’s life that is causing stress.  Often because hyperbolic language is the norm, it’s hard to figure out what the real issue is. When your daughter comes home “freaking out” with stress talk, try to listen and not react negatively.  An angry or negative reaction by a parent often is internalized by a child.  They might feel the parent is mad at them. As you listen you might hear something your child is already doing to handle the stress; help them see that.sign language "I"
  • Have brain friendly snacks at the ready.  Now is the time to motivate the whole family to use those nutritious foods and drink ideas that you know will help everyone perform well. Get a few ideas from this EdNews Parent post.
  • Together practice some gentle stretching that your daughter can use to loosen tense shoulder and neck muscles all day long.
  • Greet your daughter with a sign language “I” to remind her of how “incredible” she is. I used to do that with some of my students.

Assessments are challenging.  There is a vulnerability to assessments.  The challenge I find in any assessment is to discover ways to use them for personal growth, for goal setting, for personal understanding and for understanding the world in which we live.  Initially, assessments are about a knot in the stomach.   They are about survival – in school, at a job, our sense of self.  Assessments are about performance.  Am I going to be proficient?  Am I going to get a raise or a promotion?

To the extent your child can begin to look outward I would encourage you to think about other possibilities that might come from the CSAP experience.  This is the 21st century; assessments are not going to disappear.

  • Set some individual learning goals and record those in a journal.  Let yourselves see that personal growth. Watching growth over time is empowering.

It has been said, “Study to remember and you will forget, study to understand and you will remember.”  This can be the opportunity to begin reflecting as a learner and doing so creates another good journal activity.  Doing journal work together is a great idea. Journals at our house are not diaries and they are only shared by permission.

Getting connected outside of school is a way to see a larger world, to know our contribution makes a difference. Yes, one test score matters to our school but so do 400 other scores.

Questions remain about test design

In our world of testing and accountability those who set the standards may not always understand what needs to be measured. It took years before the question about card catalogues was removed from CSAP testing. Some schools still had them but many schools didn’t and kids were clueless when it came to answering those questions.

I do believe that the test designers have the best of intentions.  They want accountability.  They just have this huge task.  Even though we say one size does not fit all, tests like the CSAP try to make it happen. Kids  might chuckle if they were to think about trying to make all the kids in one grade wear the same size T-shirt. How funny would that be. Now, think about designing a test to measure everyone at grade (blank) for the same skill. It gets very complicated.

Our learners need some help looking at what they do well as individuals and then doing it. We can help our kids verbalize this. We can help them see growth from year to year. We can help them connect to the world around them and learn who they are as learners in a wider context.

Rene Descartes said, “Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterward to solve other problems.”  It’s the 21st century. Stress is not going to go away.  Perhaps by engaging with our kids we can generate some learning rules like Descartes said that will help us solve other problems.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.