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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Big Picture, Test Scores, and Life after High School

Someone posted an excellent set of questions and observations about Big Picture and inner-city students recently. It seemed to me worth pulling out of the comment section and putting front and center for discussion. So here is most of what the latest anonymous poster wrote:

But, how do the Big Picture schools explain the very mediocre Explore-PLAN-ACT scores their schools have put up? Doesn't it matter? Are colleges going to welcome the kids with a 13 or 14 without putting them on probation or making them take all those 095 type classes that don't count towards graduation? Over the years I've heard story after story from young people who couldn't make it or got discouraged because of these things making them feel like they weren't good enough.

Despite some of their fierce exteriors, many inner city children are extremely sensitive to intellectual criticism. Many have been told they aren't good enough somewhere else and when they don't make it in college or into college, they're done. They don't want to keep failing and being told they aren't good enough.

Until almost every college and university does away with their current entrance requirements, and figures out how to more fairly gauge student achievement, students everywhere will have to get a decent score on standardized tests. Like it or not.

Let me try to address the first question with the caveat that I am not a Big Picture teacher, administrator or consultant, so my answer is only that of an observer. I don't know how the schools would explain them, but I would explain them by saying that like most inner-city students, these students did not receive the background knowledge as very young children and elementary school students that would make them "good testers." It's hard to make up for that in two to three years of high school.

I can say with authority that Big Picture schools are not the only CPS schools with this problem. Yes, some high schools (a very small handful) are making impressive gains. I think Chicago Academy is one. Many others are not.

Second question: doesn't it matter? Yes, it matters, but is it everything? Is it more important than the difference between earning a high school diploma because you trusted the place enough to stay there and not earning a high school diploma because you didn't? I frankly do not think an ACT score is more important than the million-dollar difference in lifetime earnings between having a high school diploma and not having a high school diploma. In a city where about half the kids don't finish high school, I believe we all have to start with diploma completion when we talk about goals for our kids. (Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I see no sense talking about college without a recognition that completing high school is the necessary prerequisite and an important goal in itself.)

Here is my question back to you, anonymous poster: is closing the school the answer for low ACT scores? Should we should close a school where kids average a 14 and something like 90 percent are on-track to graduate, but leave open a school with an average ACT of 15 but only half the students graduate within five years of entry? That's Big Picture and Richards. If we close them both down, where do the kids go?

Now, to your questions as to whether these students can be admitted to college and if so, won't they be put in remedial courses? Another poster to this site has pointed out that many seniors, some juniors and even a few of the Back of the Yards sophomores are currently enrolled in one or more college courses. I spoke with a senior earlier this week who is taking a regular college course and getting a C at National-Louis. Would I rather he was getting an A? Sure. But he's getting that C now and says he's learning what he needs to do to get a better grade in his next course. That could spare him a lot of heartache freshman year. No, I don't know what his ACT score is, but I assume it is far from off the charts.

As to admissions, most Chicago Public Schools students don't meet the ACT score requirements for most colleges and universities. The CPS average (I think) is still 17.1 or something like that. Roosevelt sets 20 as its benchmark; UIC's average freshman ACT is a 23. So the average kid in CPS is in trouble, not just the Big Picture kids. But some Chicago Public Schools students go despite their scores, sometimes through programs that recruit minority students or students with promise who fall outside the usual admissions guidelines. And what makes the difference between the students who succeed in college and those who fail, as best I can tell, is the successful ones developed habits of persistence and seeking help from others. Those are habits that Big Picture explicitly cultivates in ways most high schools do not. So I think Big Picture students have no worse chance at college success than other kids in the district, and because of the habits of work and mind they are developing, likely better.

I am aware of two charter schools where average ACT scores are low but average rates of college entrance are high: North Lawndale College Prep and Young Women's Leadership Charter School. Both schools put intense effort into the college process and both have developed supports for graduates to stick it out in college through financial and academic difficulties. I don't know how their college completion results are beginning to turn out, but I have hopes for them. I think Big Picture kids deserve the same hopes, which would require keeping the school open and devoting some school resources to postgraduate supports.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Interesting blog and comments. This comment is more of a tangent. I'm sick of the term "inner city." What does it mean? Black? Minority? Poor? It doesn't mean the inner part of the city as in downtown. That's the "good" area. It doesn't mean anything within city limits. As a descriptive phrase it has lost its usefulness.

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