First Person

Researchers: College readiness requires resources

The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In the first installment, Janice Bloom and Lori Chajet present their research into the college application and transition process in New York City Schools. Bloom and Chajet both taught in small city high schools that mostly serve low-income students of color before enrolling in CUNY Graduate Center’s urban education program. They now co-direct an organization, College Access: Research & Action, to ease the college transition for city students.

Leave questions for Bloom and Chajet about their research in the comments section.

What questions guided your study?  

Bloom: How does social class impact students’ choices about post-secondary education and their transition to college?

Chajet: What happens to students when they move from a small urban public school, with a college-for-all mission, to college, and how does this illuminate the power and the limits of small school reform and the policies and practices of higher education?

How did you conduct your research?

Bloom: I used ethnographic research to study students at three small New York City high schools over the course of a year. The elements of my research were: Weekly observations of college prep or “advisory” classes; focus groups and individual interviews with a small target group of students; interviews with parents, college counselors, teachers, and the school principals; two surveys administered to a large cohort of seniors at each school.

Chajet: My study had two parts: 1) an ethnographic school based study that included participant observation, interviews with staff members and students, and document collection at one academically-unscreened small school; 2) a graduate follow-up study for which I followed a group of 6 students for three and a half-years as they transitioned into and through college – including interviewing them and their families, visiting them at their colleges, collecting their of syllabi and assignments, emailing and calling them. I also did interviews, focus groups and surveys with approximately 100 other graduates.

What were your major discoveries?

Bloom: Research indicates that the post-secondary outcomes of this transition for low-income students are often negative. Educational sociologists and other scholars have debated whether these outcomes are due to ‘contradictory attitudes towards education’ exhibited by low-income students.

My findings, however, point to a different explanation. With few exceptions, the seniors that I followed, all of whom were qualified to attend college (as demonstrated by their acceptance to four-year colleges), initially declared their intent to go to college. Their journey towards that goal, however, varied based on their backgrounds and financial resources. Poor and working class students face significant economic, social and psychological risks that middle and upper class students do not.

First, while many people are aware of the skyrocketing costs of college over the past 30 years, fewer are aware that the percentage of federal financial aid available as grants has dropped precipitously, while the percentage represented by loans has grown proportionally. For low-income students and families, taking out significant educational debt poses far larger risks than it does for middle and upper income families.

Second, these students and their families enter the college application process with far less familiarity with the landscape of higher education and the requirements for matriculation, which makes the application process far more difficult.

Finally, as the first in their families to go on to post-secondary education, students are often intimidated by college campuses, and the make-up of their faculty and students; and they carry a heavy weight of family expectations and fears with them as they head off to a new and unknown world. The transition to college campuses is often much more fraught for these students than for those from middle and upper income families, where college is a known quantity.

Thus, rather than students’ attitudes being contradictory, they are reacting to real barriers to college that they see and experience in their lives – even if those barriers may be invisible to middle class educators, policymakers and researchers.

Chajet: My study showed that when a small school redefines structures, practice, and relationships, it produces graduates who outperform national averages in rates of college attendance and persistence and emerge with an increased desire to continue their learning. At the same time, graduates’ journeys collectively demonstrate the complexity of implementing a college-for-all mission given the reality of the obstacles low-income students of color face in college.

*National numbers come from 2003 US Census data compiled in “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2003” (US Census Bureau, 2004) and New York City numbers come from 2000 US Census data compiled in Census 2000 Summary File (US Census Bureau, 2000).

Bridges’ (pseudonym for school studied) persistence rates were higher because it structured its school towards its college-for-all mission: classes were not tracked; all students had access to college guidance and were helped to apply to college; students and teachers engaged in trusting relationships; academic courses were designed for rigor and engagement; high-stakes standardized tests did not dictate standards; and teachers, treated as professionals and given the power to shape practice.

At the same time the numbers were not what small schools educators’ hoped for; the obstacles were more varied and constant than many ever imagined. Graduates’ journeys revealed a complex story – one that captured students’ intense desire to learn and how trying college can be for low-income students of color. Critiques of college teaching, stories of money and family-related stress, and indications of alienation from campus-communities were echoed throughout many interviews and surveys were.

My findings spoke to practices in both small high schools and colleges. The data illustrated that small schools – even high performing ones – need to do more around college-readiness; specifically, they need to do more to develop students’ understanding of the landscape and costs of higher education and to support students through the college search, financial aid, and choice process. They also need to increase family involvement and provide professional development around college-readiness to all staff. At the same time, the post-secondary experiences of Bridges graduates reinforce many of the documented problems within higher education for low-income students of color: inadequate financial aid; the challenge of living between two (or among many) cultures; alienation from campus communities; a lack of tacit knowledge needed to navigate the system; and un-engaging classroom practice.

While the media and policy makers often attribute low persistence rates in college to high school under-preparation, there is a need for more accountability in higher education to support, engage, and integrate low-income students of color into college.

What can policy makers learn from your work?

Bloom & Chajet: If the New York City Department of Education is going to hold schools accountable for their college-going outcomes (as it is now doing on school report cards), it needs to dedicate sufficient resources to making this possible. This means vastly increasing the resources for hiring and training college counselors in schools, providing resources to help students visit college campuses and take part in programs on these campuses, as well as training teachers and providing curriculum to high schools to do work with students about college-going, beginning in middle school.

Have you done any follow-up work? 

Bloom & Chajet: Since completing our research, we have gone back into schools (through a grant from the Higher Education Services Corporation, administered by the Institute for Student Achievement) and worked to develop these kinds of resources to train teachers and implement curriculum with students. This year, with our colleague Lisa Cowan, we started an organization — College Access: Research & Action (CARA) — to help schools, community-based organizations, and the larger policy arena put into practice what we found through our research.

Are there further questions you are exploring? 

Bloom & Chajet: A “college-going culture” is often seen as the ideal. However, many schools struggle to operationalize this: Beyond wearing college sweatshirts or naming advisory classrooms after colleges, how can schools create a “culture” that encourages ALL students towards informed choices around post-secondary education?

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.