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April 4, 2014

Public high schools are prominent in Ivy League rosters

By now, you’ve all read about Kwasi Enin, the Long Island high school student who applied and gained admission to all eight Ivy League schools.

Scattered along the East Coast, the universities— Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Princeton and Cornell— are among the most selective in the country, admitting less than 9 percent of its collective applicants this year. Harvard’s admit rate was the lowest at 5.9 percent, while Cornell was the highest at 14 percent.

Acceptance into one Ivy League college is difficult enough, let alone all eight which is why Enin’s feat has rightly garnered widespread media attention. And small wonder all eight welcomed him. Besides participating in student government and playing three instruments in the chamber orchestra, Enin throws discus and shot put for the track and field team, acts in school plays and volunteers at a local hospital. An extraordinarily gifted student from— can I point out— a public high school.

Fluke? Far from.

Although matriculating data was provided on only four of the college’s admissions websites, that information, along with other secondary sources indicate the majority of Ivy League’s recent classes have come from public high schools.

Public school grads make up 55% of incoming freshman at Dartmouth and Yale, 58.7% at Princeton and 66% at Cornell UniversityBrown doesn’t have figures for its undergrad program, but it does reveal that 67% of students accepted into its medical school in 2013 hailed from public high schools. In a 2009 New York Times piece, William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, noted that public schools provided almost 70 percent of the incoming freshmen class that fall.

With eight of the most prestigious universities knocking on his door — Enin also applied and received acceptance letters from Duke and three State University of New York campuses— the Long Island teen has every right to bask in the sun. But so should public schools who’ve prepared Enin and countless others for the country’s top universities and beyond.

In fairness, some commentary—even from the schools themselves—- have noted that the increasing fixation on Ivy League admittance has shifted attention from the fact that there are other high caliber colleges in the country, many of which are public universities that have a rich history of producing notable graduates including Oprah Winfrey, Jon Stewart and former President Gerald Ford, to name a few.

Whether at the K-12 or post-secondary level, public education is clearly equipping future generations with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers. This is an important point that shouldn’t get lost, as it debunks the common belief that exclusivity automatically equates to superiority. That’s obviously not the case, since public high school students occupy the vast majority of Ivy League’s incoming classes and it stands to reason that they likely occupy the ranks of public universities, too.

I wish Enin lots of luck as he enters the next chapter in his life. I’ve no doubt he’ll do well no matter where he goes. His parents and public education prepared him well.

To read more about the various approaches and practices of rigorous high schools, check out CPE’s report Is High School Tough Enough?






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 20, 2014

High school graduation rate at an all-time high

NAEPSecretary Duncan proudly wore number 80 on his jersey at the NBA celebrity All-Star game this past weekend— as well he should’ve. It just so happens the number 80 represents one of the best kept secrets in education: our national on-time graduation rate.

This may come as a shock to many as popular perception tends to be the myth that our public schools are flatlining. But the facts show otherwise, as recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics show our national on-time graduation rate for our public high schools now stands at 80 percent— an all-time high.  It’s quite an accomplishment considering the rate hovered around 71 percent for much of the 1990s.

And keep in mind, the 80 percent graduation rate represents only those students who earned a standard high school diploma within four years of entering high school so it doesn’t include students who earned a high school equivalency (ex GED) or certificates of completion. Nor does it include those students who took more than four years to earn a standard high school diploma. As our report on late high school graduates Better Late Than Never found, including late high school graduates would likely add more than 5 percentage points to the national graduation rate. So the actual national graduation rate is quite likely closer to 90 than 80 percent.

What is even more impressive about these gains is that our high schools are serving an ever more diverse student population. Yet the overall graduation rate increased due to the substantial gains made by minority students. The on-time graduation rate for Hispanic students increased from 64 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2011. During this same time period the on-time graduation rate for black students improved from 61 percent to 67 percent. These are tremendous gains made in a relatively short amount of time. Let’s not overlook the fact that the graduation rate also continued to climb for white students during this same time period (81 to 84 percent).

While these are numbers worth celebrating they also show there is much more work to be done. The attainment gap between minority and white students needs to be closed. While they have narrowed in recent years, the narrowing needs to accelerate so minority students who are just entering school now will have the same chance to graduate as their white classmates.

Of course, simply giving students a diploma will not help them get a job or get into college. So, the diplomas they do receive must represent that fact that these students have completed courses they need to get into and succeed in college or get a quality job after high school. While there is more work to be done to ensure all students leave college and career ready, the data clearly shows our public schools are up the challenge. – Jim Hull






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






January 31, 2014

Are elementary school parents more demanding than high school parents?

demanding parentIn a recent Op-Ed Thomas Friedman asks are we falling behind* as a country in education because:

“…too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to excel?”

Friedman asks this question in response to a recent speech in which Secretary Duncan stated ”…I wished our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools” after telling a story in which South Korean President Lee told President Obama his country’s biggest education problem was that parents were too demanding. Secretary Duncan went on to quote Amanda Ripley author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got There stating:

“too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put the work needed today to really excel.”

Quite the bold argument but are there any actual facts to back up these claims? To argue that U.S. parents and students are lazy or at the very least complacent there must be some compelling data to back up these claims. So what ‘evidence’ does Friedman provide to back up his hypothesis? Letters from two, count them, two veteran high school teachers who obviously had become disenfranchised because they believed their students were being asked to do less and in fact were doing less. As heartfelt and compelling as these letters are they are still just the experience of two teachers. Not exactly a representative sample of teachers nationwide.

So the question must be asked: Are students doing less now and if so, is it because less is expected of them?  Of course, the answers to these questions are quite subjective. However, the teachers Friedman highlighted backed up their claims by noting that it is harder to get students to do homework now than every before—so in essence they were using homework completion as a proxy for student effort. And if you look at homework data that was collected along with the Long-term NAEP assessment for both 13 and 17 year-olds it does appear students are doing less homework on-average than they were a couple decades ago–although parents of high school children taking 4 Advanced Placement classes may find this hard to believe.

So it appears there is evidence to support the teachers’ contention that students are doing less homework now than in previous years but such evidence does not provide the complete story. As Secretary Duncan was claiming indirectly that students in other countries– like South Korea– are out working our students at least in part because their parents demand more. If we once again use homework as a proxy for student effort it is the South Korean parents who are less demanding. According to data from the 2011 Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS) 15 percent of U.S. 8th graders spent 3 or more hours per week doing homework compared to just 2 percent of 8th graders in South Korea. South Korea is not an outlier either. In Japan and Finland–both high performing countries– the percentage is about the same as South Korea. The other extreme is true as well where 78 percent of South Korean 8th graders spent less than 45 minutes per week doing homework compared to just 43 percent of U.S. 8th graders.

Unfortunately, there isn’t as much information on homework in high school but South Korea is known for how much time their high school students spend on homework. So even if we take that as a given does that mean that South Korean parents suddenly demand more once they children hit high school? Do U.S. parents push their children through elementary school then suddenly stop demanding such hard work when they enter high school? I don’t think so.

While there is evidence that students are spending less time on homework and it probably true U.S. high school students on-average spend less time on homework than high school students in other countries, it doesn’t necessarily mean students are not working as hard or less is expected of them. In fact, the assumption our students are expected to do less is wrong. When you actually look at the data you see today’s students are taking much more rigorous courses. For example, according to data from Long-Term NEAP in 1986 just 79 percent of 17 year-olds had taken Algebra compared to 96 percent of students in 2012. Furthermore, 76 percent of 17 year olds took Algebra II in 2012 compared to just 44 percent in 1986. The percent of student taking Calculus has also dramatically increased from just 7 percent in 1986 to 24 percent in 2012. Such increases in rigorous courses were not relegated to math courses either. Similar increases were also made in science as well with many more students taking chemistry and physics now than in the 1980s.

While students may be spending less time on homework, they are taking more challenging courses. So to claim our students aren’t working as hard or not expected to do as much is not supported by actual evidence. In fact, our students are expected to do more and are in fact doing more than ever before. Can we expect more? We sure can but just because parents make education the end-all be-all of human existence in a couple high performing countries doesn’t mean that’s how parents should act here. Parents should set high expectation from their children and their local schools that will educate them but they should also let their children be children as well. – Jim Hull

*I’ll take on the inaccurate assumption the U.S. is falling behind other countries next week. 






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