Why are these kids doing so well?

Octavio Gutierrez previews lessons for students learning English. Photo: Emmanuel Felton

The kids are doing alright on Common Core tests in a small Los Angeles-area district, reports Hechinger’s Emmanuel Felton. In Wiseburn Unified, low-income blacks, Latinos and English Learners significantly outperform similar students elsewhere.

In fact, the district’s 55 percent of the district’s low-income black students passed the English exam, 11 points above the state average for all students.

Statewide, only 13 percent of low-income black students passed in math. In Wiseburn, 29 percent passed, the largest percentage of any district with significant black enrollment.

Superintendent Tom Johnstone said the district started teaching math differently in 2009, before the Core.

In the lower grades, teachers get on the floor with their students to work with brightly colored blocks and chips to assess their mathematical thinking and problem-solving strategies. In the middle and upper grades, students spend whole class periods on a handful of math problems, rather than racing through reams of equations.

An engineering curriculum called Project Lead The Way has students work together to build things. Johnstone says that program has been key to getting young students – particularly girls and minorities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – interested in math, science and the robotics team, which competes in world championships.

In English Language Arts, Wiseburn gives English learners what amounts to 27 extra days of instruction, with previews of what they’ll learn later in the week in English together with their native English-speaking peers.

Wiseburn is a predominantly Latino district with a high tax base from nearby aerospace companies. It’s a district of choice: 43 percent of students have transferred in from neighboring districts with struggling schools.

However, success isn’t just a matter of parental buy-in and funding, Johnstone told Felton. “Much of this was accomplished during the fiscal crisis, when we weren’t able to give out any salary increases for five years.”

Two girls, different futures

As a 12th grader, Guadalupe Acevedo started thinking about college, but learned she qualifies only for community college. Photo: Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times

Lizbeth Ledesma and Guadalupe Acevedo grew up in low-income, immigrant families in Los Angeles, but their college futures are very different, write Joy Resmovits and Sonali Kohli in the Los Angeles Times.

A straight-A student in public school, Lizbeth earned a scholarship to Chadwick, a private school, in ninth grade. She pushed herself to meet higher academic standards. By 10th grade, expert counselors were helping her plan for college. A counselor helped her get a full scholarship to Babson College, near Boston, her first-choice school.

Lizbeth Ledesma meets with her colleague counselor, Beth Akers, at her private school.

Lizbeth Ledesma discusses college plans with counselor Alicia Valencia at Chadwick, a private school.

At Roosevelt High, a Los Angeles Unified campus in a low-income neighborhood, Guadalupe didn’t think seriously about college till her senior year. Even then, “I was so lost. I didn’t know how college worked.”

California students must complete a college-prep sequence of courses with C’s or better — and an overall B average — to qualify for a state university. Guadalupe realized too late she qualified only for community college.

She’ll start at East Los Angeles College and “hopes to transfer to USC, where she wants to take dance and Chicano studies and be a cheerleader,” reports the Times. (And ride a purple unicorn.)

Someone who earned mediocre (or worse) grades in low-level classes at a not-very-demanding high school is almost certain to be placed in remedial classes in community college. Most remedial students drop out in their first year, sometimes in their first few weeks.

Guadalupe could work hard and beat the odds. But her USC dreams show she’s still not getting useful advice.

Why poor kids don’t try for top colleges

Genesis Morales works on the computer at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas. Photo: Cooper Neill, Texas Tribune

“One Dallas-area high school sent more than 60 students to University of Texas-Austin last year,” report Neena Satija and Matthew Watkins in the Texas Tribune. A few miles away, a high-poverty, high-minority school sent one.

Students who rank in the top 10 percent of their senior class are guaranteed a spot in any state university. (At UT-Austin, a student usually needs to be in the top 7 percent.)

Yet, across the state, many low-income, first-generation students don’t apply to top colleges, write Satija and Watkins. Some fear they don’t belong at elite schools like UT-Austin.

Genesis Morales, a senior who ranks 8th in her class at Bryan Adams High, qualifies for automatic admission to UT-Austin, but didn’t apply.

. . . her parents, who are from Mexico, didn’t graduate high school. Her dad is a landscaper, and her mom is a factory worker. For years, her only impressions of college came from watching television shows.

“It’s people who have money, people who are, like, prodigies and stuff, [who] end up there. For me, I was never surrounded by those people — people who went to college.”

Persuaded to aim higher than community college, Morales set her sights on going to Texas Woman’s University in Denton. She prefers a lower-ranked school. “I feel I’m not going to be as smart. So when it comes to tough schools, I kind of stay away,” she said.

Many top-ranked students at Bryan Adams are applying to UT’s less-selective campuses in the Dallas area, reports the Tribune.

. . . most low-income students of color prefer to stay close to home, said Jane Lincove, an assistant professor at Tulane University who studies college access.

In addition to that, at the branch campuses, “there’s more students who look like them, and there’s more students who went to their high schools,” Lincove said of minority students.

Despite her high grades, Morales’ SAT score is in the 43rd percentile, which is low for UT-Austin students. She believes she’d have trouble completing a degree.

“At the state’s two flagships, UT-Austin and Texas A&M University, 72 percent of Hispanic students graduate within six years, compared with 49 percent at Texas Woman’s,” write Satija and Watkins. Of course, that ignores the apple-orange issue: The flagship schools enroll academically superior Hispanic students compared to Texas Woman’s.

Some believe affirmative action can hurt minority students by getting them into top colleges, where they’ll struggle academically, instead of less-elite colleges, where they’ll be as prepared as their classmates. Mikhail Zinshteyn looks at the debate on “mismatch theory.”

More kids take AP courses, fail exam

Glenbard West U.S. history AP class

Teacher Meghan Rio leads a discussion in AP U.S. history at Glenbard West High in a Chicago suburb. Photo: Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune

As schools push disadvantaged students to take Advanced Placement courses, pass rates are falling on AP exams. Does AP help if students fail the exam?, asks Natalie Gross on the Education Writers Association blog.

“Cicero’s J.S. Morton High School District has pushed its mostly low-income students to take tough Advanced Placement courses and exams — just like teens do at elite high schools,” reports Diane Rado in the Chicago Tribune. The number of students taking AP exams doubled in five years, but “passing rates plunged.”

Trevor Packer, head of the AP program at the nonprofit College Board based in New York, said even students who get scores below 3 can still benefit from AP by attending a rigorous class, becoming familiar with a college-level syllabus, experiencing intensive reading and other benefits.

. . . “We are fundamentally opposed to the gatekeeping that was happening 20 years ago and it continues,” said Packer, referencing roadblocks — such as test scores or grades — that keep kids from getting into honors and AP classes in high school.

However, in 2013, Packer told Politico reporter Stephanie Simon that research showed college grades and graduation rates were no higher for AP students, unless they earned a passing grade of 3 or better.

Earlier research that showed benefits for all AP students was flawed, he said, because it didn’t control for other predictors of college success, such as family income and high-school grades.

A new Illinois law requires state colleges and universities to grant college credit for students who earn a score of 3 or higher on AP exams, Rado notes. Last year, 62.8 percent of public school students did that well.

At an EWA seminar in Los Angeles, Robert Tai, a University of Virginia researcher, said that students who passed AP science exams with a 3, did poorly in first-semester science courses.

Inside the discipline debate

A video of a Success Academy teacher ripping a student’s math paper has raised a debate about discipline at rigorous, “no excuses” charter schools, writes Elizabeth Green on Chalkbeat.

“No excuses” refers to adults using students’ poverty to explain — and tolerate — poor academic results, Green writes. However, many reformers believed effective schools must adopted the “broken windows” theory that holds tolerating small infractions leads to serious disorder.

At struggling schools, the no-excuses educators argued, learning was regularly undermined by chaos, from physical fights to a refusal to follow even basic directions.

. . . At no-excuses schools, students often walk from one class to another in orderly and perfectly silent single-file lines. Detailed instructions dictate precisely how and when students should pay attention, from nodding to folding their hands and legs just so — poses on display in the Success Academy video. Teachers sometimes ban conversation during breakfast or lunch.

Now, there’s a move to relax rigid rules and make no-excuses schools happier places. Green thinks charter leaders have the desire and ability to improve the model.

But I think this is her most important point:

Looking at test scores, all the highest academic results ever produced for poor students and students of color have come from no-excuses schools. Period.

. . . Success Academy charter schools, which ranked in the top 1 percent of all New York schools in math and the top 3 percent in English.

. . . Other life outcomes are impressive, too. Data collected by the KIPP charter school network in 2013 showed that 44 percent of the schools’ graduates go on to earn a four-year degree, compared to just 8 percent of low-income Americans.

The urban no-excuses charters have significantly improved the reading and math skills — and the odds of high school and college graduation — for students from low-income black and Latino families. No other model has done this consistently, writes Green.

It’s a long piece, but well worth reading in full. Let me know what you think.

New SAT requires more reading

My 16-year-old niece won’t take the new SAT, which debuts in March. Uncertainty about the redesigned SAT — and fears that it will be harder — persuaded her to take the ACT instead. Apparently, she’s not the only one.

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

The new SAT will demand more sophisticated reading skills — even in math — experts tell the New York Times.

It will be harder for students from non-English-speaking families to excel in math, Lee Weiss, the vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

SAT dropped the vocabulary section of the test, saying it forced students to learn arcane words. But the new exam features longer reading passages that “contain sophisticated words and thoughts in sometimes ornate diction,” reports the Times.

The math problems include “a lot of unnecessary words,” said Serena Walker, a college-bound junior at Boston’s Match charter school, who was working on a practice quiz.

“An anthropologist studies a woman’s femur that was uncovered in Madagascar,” one question began. She knew a femur was a leg bone, but was not sure about “anthropologist.” She was contemplating “Madagascar” just as she remembered her teacher’s advice to concentrate on the essential, which, she decided, was the algebraic equation that came next, h = 60 + 2.5f, where h stood for height and f stood for the length of the femur.

“Students will need to learn how to wade through all the language to isolate the math,” wrote Jed Applerouth, who runs a national tutoring service, in a blog post. The new math test is 50 percent reading comprehension, he estimated.

The Times asks: How Would You Do on the New SAT? Check it out. I thought the math questions were ridiculously easy. Are they making the reading harder and the math easier?

The power of high school ‘speech’

Democracy Prep students from the Bronx went to Yale to compete in a speech tournament, reports The Guardian. The black and Latino charter students hope to earn college scholarships for success in “competitive acting.” They’re already wonderfully articulate.

A school grows in Brooklyn

Principal Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño keeps an eye on her start-up school by working in the hall rather than in her office. Photo: Julienne Schaer

In This is how you start a school, Hechinger’s Sara Neufeld talks with the founding principal, a teacher and a parent at a new charter high school in the poor Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.

Brooklyn Ascend High offers “a liberal arts curriculum that promotes critical thinking over exam prep,” writes Neufeld.  As an alternative to suspension, teachers use “reflective circles.”

Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño grew up not far from her new school. Her mother was an alcoholic. She survived abuse by relatives. “By age 18, she was pregnant with her second baby when she arrived upstate for college,” writes Neufeld. She married, earned two degrees and worked as an English teacher and school administrator.

Her older son, a high school dropout, is in prison on gun and drug charges. Her younger son is working on a master’s degree in public health.

In third grade at a “no excuses” charter, 8-year-old Jeremy Peña still gets more homework than his older brother, Jann. Photo: Julienne Schaer

In third grade at a “no excuses” charter school, Jeremy Peña still gets more homework than his older brother, Jann. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Jovanka Anderson, a Dominican immigrant, enrolled her younger son in a “no excuses” charter. He had more homework than his older brother, who attended a middle school magnet for gifted and talented students. Jann Peña won the lottery to attend Ascend, a one in seven shot.

As a ninth grader, Jann “tested at a sixth-grade reading level on the school placement exam in August and at midway through fifth grade in math.”

Jovanka Anderson and her husband, Emilio Peña, are high school dropouts. They want their children to go to college.

Like four of five Ascend teachers, Taylor Delhagen, 31, came “from a nearby charter where they had success producing high test scores among low-income students but felt stifled in what they see as a more vital task: developing human beings,” writes Neufeld.

ESSA passes: Will states step up?

No Child Left Behind is no more. The Every Student Succeeds Act has passed the Senate and House by wide margins. President Obama signed the new education bill today.

Will every student succeed under the new education bill?

Will every student succeed under the new education bill?

ESSA guts the “strong accountability provisions that helped spur reforms that have helped more children attain high-quality education than at any other time in the history of American public education,” writes Sandy Kress, who helped write NCLB, on Dropout Nation.

Under ESSA, “schools that fail to lift student achievement or close achievement gaps” will face no federal consequences, he writes. States and districts will hold themselves accountable for serving all students. Or not.

As seen in TexasCalifornia, and even in strong reform-oriented states such as Indiana and New York, traditionalists have been successful in weakening standards for high school graduation, getting rid of accountability measures, and ditching tests that are key in observing how well schools are serving our children. Opponents of reform have been successful in getting more money for doing less for our students . . .

ESSA stands for Excusing States for Student Abandonment, writes Alan Singer on the Huffington Post.

The bill is “political posturing,” writes Conor Williams. “It combines a thin veneer of civil rights equity with excruciating complexity and uncertain accountability.”

Conservatives should oppose the bill’s “bizarre, unclear federal accountability mandates,” he argues. Progressives should not trust states to hold schools accountable for serving underprivileged and underserved kids.

Charters work best for neediest kids

Urban charter schools improve the achievement of their low-income, black and Latino students, writes Susan Dynarski, a University of Michigan professor, in the New York Times. In predominantly white, middle-class suburbs, “charters do no better and sometimes do worse” than neighborhood schools.

MATCH's disadvantaged students are some of the highest scoring students in Boston.

MATCH students are some of the highest scoring students in Boston. Credit: Kayana Szymczak/New York Times

Lottery studies in Massachusetts and a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department confirm the pattern, she writes.

A Stanford study of student performance in 41 cities “also concluded that their charters outperformed their traditional public schools.”

Charter schools in Boston, which predominantly educate low-income black students, produce “huge gains in test scores,” her research shows. Charter-school “score gains are large enough to reduce the black-white score gap in Boston’s middle schools by two-thirds.”

Boston’s charters also do a better job at preparing students for college. Charter students are twice as likely to take an Advanced Placement exam as similar students in Boston’s other public schools. Ten percent of charter students pass an A.P. calculus test, compared with just 1 percent of similar students in other public schools. This stronger preparation means that these charter students are far more likely than similar students in traditional public schools to attend a four-year college.

Urban charters have one big advantage: It’s not hard to do better than the district alternative.

The bar is higher in the suburbs. Suburban charters must be drawing parents who value a small school, more flexibility, a non-standard curriculum or . . . They’re choosing something.

Looking at eighth-grade math scores on NAEP, Hispanic charter students in Florida and Arizona “scored about a grade level ahead” of Hispanic students in district schools, writes Matthew Ladner. In Florida, Hispanic charter students outperform the state average for all students in half the states.