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March 7, 2014

Big changes coming for the SAT – What do they really mean?

Big changes coming for the SAT – What do they really mean?

On Wednesday, the College Board announced a major overhaul of the SAT in what will be the second revision of the college entrance exam in less than ten years. Substantial changes include:

  • The test will again be scored out of 1600, and the penalty for guessing will be eliminated
  • Some of the more obscure vocabulary words are being thrown out and replaced with words that are commonly used in the academic and professional worlds
  • The essay portion of the test will now be optional and source-based, and students choosing to complete it will have 50 minutes, rather than 25, to do so
  • Math questions will focus on three main areas: problem solving and data analysis, algebra, and real-world math related to the design, technology, and engineering fields

Perhaps the most substantial change is that the new test will be closely aligned with what high schools are teaching.  It will require students to analyze nonfiction texts, build an argument using evidence, and apply math concepts to real life situations; all skills that are emphasized in the Common Core State Standards. The alignment between the new SAT and the CCSS is not surprising, as David Coleman, a key architect of the Common Core, now serves as President of the College Board. The goal for the redesign was to create an SAT that is more transparent, focused, and closely tied to the work that students do in school every day. The College Board believes the test should move toward evidence-based thinking and reinforcing the skills that students should have already learned in high school, and move away from the need for test taking tips, tricks, and strategies that make the test prep industry so profitable and allow affluent students whose families can afford expensive tutors and intense coaching to “game” to SAT. The College Board is also partnering with Kahn Academy to offer free online test preparation materials in an attempt to level the playing field for SAT-takers and curb exorbitant spending on test prep.

While the College Board’s goal of reducing inequality is certainly admirable, we have to ask – how much will these changes really matter? The SAT is becoming less and less relevant in college admissions decisions now that over 800 colleges and universities have “test optional” admissions policies.  Even among students who are still required to submit test scores for college admissions, the SAT is declining in popularity. For the last two years more students have chosen the ACT over the SAT for their college admissions test (although this could change now that both tests focus on what students have learned in school).  I am also relatively unconvinced that changing the test will rein in the culture of test prep hysteria among parents. This new SAT might be more difficult to “teach to” but that’s not going to stop affluent parents from purchasing every book, tutor, or service that might help their children gain an edge. Changing the test is not going to kill the test prep industry, as the College Board seems to hope it might.

The bright spot seems to be that the test is moving toward aligning with what students are actually learning in school. Since high school grades are routinely given more weight in college admissions, it just makes sense to test students on material that matches up with what they have learned, rather than arcane words they may never see again after SAT day. This realignment and the availability of free online prep materials are steps in the right direction, even if they don’t substantially change the culture of college test preparation. — Patricia Cambell

Filed under: Assessments,college,Common Core,High school — Patricia Campbell @ 1:14 pm

February 7, 2014

U.S. Schools Are Not Flatlining!

NAEPThe idea that U.S. school performance is flat is indefensible. But unfortunately all too many people believe it to be true. Why wouldn’t they? This sentiment is so often stated that it is assumed to be fact, especially since the 2012 PISA results were released last December. For example, in a recent Washington Post column Is The U.S. Making the Grade in Education? columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote “The United States has muddled along over the past few decades, showing little improvement or decline” as if it was undisputed fact even without providing any evidence. Over at Education Week Marc Tucker tries to answer the question Why Has U.S. Education  Performance Flatlined? by cherry-picking a few pieces of data that at first glance appear to support his assumption. Broadly speaking Tucker asserts the U.S. has made little progress since the 1970s in improving student achievement or graduating more students from high school or college.

Marc Tucker is not alone in pointing to such data to claim that U.S. schools are not improving which makes it vitally important to look at all the evidence to determine if indeed our schools have flatlined. As I recently wrote in the American School Boards Journal, the evidence is quite clear that our public schools have not flatlined but are making dramatic improvements in many areas.

Here is the evidence and you decide whether our schools have flatlined or flourished:

Students today are learning more than ever before

If you simply look at overall NAEP scores for our nation’s 17-year olds scores have improved by just six points between 1978 and 2012 it does appear that our schools have indeed flatlined. However, when you take a closer look a much different picture emerges. You’ll see that our nation’s black 17-year olds have improved by 20-points while Hispanic students improved by 18-points—these gains equate to nearly two years worth of learning. The results were even more impressive in reading where black students improved by 28-points between 1975 and 2012 which is nearly three years worth of learning while Hispanic students make a significant progress as well by improving their scores by 21-points. Such lines are hardly flat. Keep in mind that white students made significant gains during these time periods as well. Furthermore, similar gains were made by our nation’s 9- and 13-year olds.

A world leader in improvement

Our schools may not top the international rankings but few countries have improved their performance as much as we have. On the international Trends In Math and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. 4th graders saw their math scores improve by 23 points between 1995 and 2011. U.S. eighth graders saw similar improvements with scores rising 18 points during the same time period. For each of these grade levels the gains were among the largest made by participating countries.  It should be noted the U.S. also made significant gains on the 8th grade TIMSS science assessment and on PIRLS the international 4th grade reading assessment.

More students receiving a diploma

Not only are our students learning more, more students are graduating. Although graduation rates remained relatively flat between 1970 and 2000, between 2000 and 2010 they steadily increased from 67 percent to 75. Just like on the achievement measures black and Hispanic students made even greater gains during this period. In 2000 just 50 percent of black students graduated high school within four years. That percentage has climbed to 62 percent in 2010. The improvement made by Hispanic students was even more impressive by increasing from 50 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2010.

More students are also graduating from college. The percent of the population over 25 with a bachelor’s degree increased from 11 percent in 1970 to 30 percent in 2010. During this same time period the percent of black adults with a bachelor’s degree increased from 6 percent 20 percent. For Hispanics, 8 percent of adults held bachelor’s degrees in 1980—the oldest data available—compared to 13.9 percent in 2010.

Despite the common assertion that our schools have flatlined, the facts clearly show our students are performing higher and more students are earning degrees than ever before. Are our schools where we want them to be? No, there is obviously more work that needs to be done. But the facts do show that our public schools are making significant strides and are in the best position to ensure all students obtain the skills they need to lead a successful life. – Jim Hull

October 31, 2013

Surprises within the rising cost of college

Teacher A recent study from College Board relays some surprising facts about the rising cost of college. Indeed, the severity of the cost increases and who bears them may be not be immediately obvious. A New York Times article concludes that when taking inflation into account, the price of private colleges have increased by 1.6% annually over the past 20 years. After inflation, public four-year colleges increased by 2.3% and two-year programs decreased by .03%. The increases for four year schools are certainly alarming, but not quite as drastic as they’re often portrayed.

As the Times article conveys, misconceptions about the rising costs are due to the role that financial aid plays. All universities market a list or “sticker” price that captures an official cost. But according to College Board economist Sandy Baum, the actual cost that most families incur is much lower due to a variety of factors like grant aid and scholarships. Data from the College Board study confirms Baum’s analysis, showing the substantial dent that financial aid puts in tuition costs.

The data also show that low-income students receive far more financial aid than middle and upper class students. That assistance is paired with smaller cost spikes for low income students and larger ones for middle and upper class students. In fact, analysis from the Washington Post shows that families with incomes between $32,000 and $60,000 saw a 17% increase in college costs between 1992 and 2007, while families making more than $100,000 experienced a 24% increase. Those with incomes less than $32,500 saw a 3% increase.

What Can Education Leaders Do with this Information?

The data points expose the importance of school counselors. Although low income students incur lower college costs, they must submit accurate and compelling aid applications in order to acquire those costs. School counselors are in a prime position to help students with this work or bring it their attention. Counselors can also help students—particularly middle and upper income students that bear the brunt of college costs—prepare for and find scholarships that are targeted to their ethnicities, interests, work history, and extra-curricular activities. In a 2009 interview with CNN, Tally Hart, the senior adviser for economic access at Ohio State, reported that scholarships go unused because students often miss scholarship deadlines or submit sloppy applications. Instilling quality counselors into public schools provides a medium to decrease these issues and minimize the cost of college.

Counselors can also help with issues that are disguised within the college cost data. The aforementioned College Board report shows that cost estimates for low-income students are meager for two-year and four-year public colleges. This finding, however, conceals a critical fact about poor minority students. As a recent CPE article demonstrates, most low income, minority students that qualify for elite four-year schools don’t actually apply to those schools; instead, they opt for cheaper, less prestigious options or don’t go on to higher education at all. These opportunities are often missed due to a lack of information about financial aid and the college admissions process. Increasing or developing school counselors could provide college readiness details to students and their families, raising the number of qualified low- income students in 4 year programs and college cost data sets.

Unfortunately, the average school counselor’s caseload is bloated. The aforementioned CPE report states that the average student to counselor ratio in the U.S. sits around 470 to 1. That’s twice the amount that the American Counseling Association recommends. If education leaders want to help parents prepare for the rising costs of education, they must find ways to remedy excessive counselor caseloads or deliver college prep information through other mediums.

Filed under: college,CPE,Demographics — Jordan Belton @ 7:30 am

October 8, 2013

You don’t need to go to Harvard to benefit from college

Some parents and policymakers are uncomfortable with the recent emphasis in education policy on college readiness, which is typified by the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 45 states. Reason likely being, the term college-ready is synonymous with preparing students for four-year postsecondary institutions like Harvard or their state’s flagship university. As the rhetoric behind the push to graduate all students college-ready typically revolves around graduating more students with a four-year degree, it is no wonder there is such apprehension.

It is absolutely true that not all students are meant or want to go to Harvard or any other four-year institution. Yet, it is clear most of today’s students will need education beyond high school to obtain a job to sustain a middle-class lifestyle. However, college-readiness goes beyond preparing all students to earn a four-year degree; it’s about preparing students to earn two-year degrees as well. A new report brings to light this fact by finding that community college graduates earn on-average $259,000 more over their working lifetime than those who only earn a high school degree. As a result, community college graduates pay $67,000 more in taxes. Moreover, community college graduates are less likely to need government assistance– such as unemployment benefits– as they are less likely to be unemployed as well.

Drawing attention to the success of community college graduates is critically important to promoting the fact that college-readiness is not just about preparing students for Harvard. The importance of the affordability and the technical training provided by our nation’s community colleges should not be overlooked. However, as my previous report on international college attainment rates showed, the U.S. does a decent job preparing students to earn a four-year degree but falls well short when it comes to the attainment of two-year degrees. If we as a nation focus on significantly improving the college attainment rates for our two-year colleges, the U.S. would not only once again be among the global leaders in college-attainment but it would also have a significant impact on the nation’s economy as well. – Jim Hull

September 26, 2013

Despite plateau in overall scores, minority students are more prepared for college

While the overall flat nature of the scores are nothing to celebrate, a closer look at the latest SAT data shows public schools are doing a better job preparing poor and minority students for college according to the 2013 SAT Report on College Readiness released today. 

Although scores for minority students have increased, it is important to point out that huge gaps remain between minority students and their white classmates. The results show that minority students are not completing the rigorous courses they need not only to score higher on the SAT but to prepare them to get into and succeed in college.

Just as the ACT showed last month, these results show schools need to double and even triple their efforts in making sure all students are adequately prepared for college-level work. To do so, high schools need to ensure that all students are taking the courses they need to succeed in college. Unfortunately, as CPE’s latest report Out of Sync found, most states do not require the courses students need to succeed in college as a high school graduation requirement. As more graduates plan on enrolling in college, it is more important than ever that a high school diploma represent a student who is ready for higher education, whether at a two or four-year institution. — Jim Hull

The Findings

National Scores

  • The nation’s graduating Class of 2013 had an average composite score of 1498, which is unchanged from 2012 (1500) but significantly lower than 2009 (1505).
    • At a score of 1498, an average high school graduate has about a 75 percent chance of getting admitted into a competitive four-year college.*
  • Scores remained unchanged in all three sections over the past year. Just as in 2012, scores were 496 in Critical Reading, 514 in Math, and 488 in Writing for 2013.   
  • Scores improved for most racial/ethnic groups.
    • The average combined Hispanic student score was 1354 in 2013, which is three points higher than in 2012 and nine points lower than in 2008.
    • The average black student score was 1278 in 2013, which is five points higher than in 2012 and two points lower than in 2008.
    • The average white student score was 1576 in 2013, which is two points lower than in 2012 and three points lower than in 2008.

College Readiness

  • Nearly half (43 percent) of the test-takers met the SAT College-Ready Benchmark in 2013, which is unchanged from the year prior and slightly lower than in 2009 (44 percent).
    • The SAT College Ready Benchmarks represent a student who scores a combined 1550 or higher. Students hitting this benchmark have a 65 percent chance of earning a B-minus grade point average in their freshman year courses.
  • Minority students are less likely to be college ready.
    • Just 15.6 of black students and 23.5 percent of Hispanic students were college ready according to the SAT’s Benchmark.
    • However, both black and Hispanic students saw increases in reaching the SAT Benchmark from 2012 to 2013.

Core Course Rigor

  • Seventy-five percent of SAT test-takers completed the recommended “core” college-preparatory curriculum, which is an increase from 70 percent in 2001.
    • Just 66 percent of black students and 70 percent of Hispanic students completed the core curriculum, compared to 80 percent of white students.
    • However, both black and Hispanic students saw a one percentage point increase in core curriculum completion rates since 2012.
  • High school graduates who took math or English AP or Honors courses scored significantly higher than students who complete four or more year’s worth in each subject, not only in the relevant subject area, but in all three SAT sections.

Test Takers

  • Just over 1.66 million students from the Class of 2013 took the SAT sometime during their high school which was a slight dip from 2012.
  • Slightly more minority students are taking the SAT.
    • In 2013, 17 percent of SAT test-takers were Hispanic which was the same as in 2012, but greater than the 12 percent in 2008.
    • Thirteen percent of SAT test-takers were black in 2013 which was the same as in 2012, but greater than the 11 percent in 2008.
    • The percent of test-takers who were white continues to drop from 57 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2012 to just 50 percent in 2013.
  • A greater number of students whose first language isn’t English are taking the SAT.
    • In 2013 13 percent of SAT test-takers’ first language was not English compared to 9 percent in 2008.
  • The vast majority (82 percent) of SAT test-takers want to earn at least a Bachelor’s degree, up from 75 percent a decade ago.

For more information on how to use college entrance exam scores to evaluate your school, check out the Center’s Data First Web site.

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