Schools Aim To Bump Up Low SAT Scores

Christopher Peak PhotoJudging by SAT scores, the vast majority of New Haven’s public high school students aren’t prepared to succeed after graduation —  a glaring gap with their suburban peers that district officials are trying to close.

High school juniors who took the SAT last year scored 891 points on average out of 1600 total on the two-section test

By the state’s metrics, those numbers look pretty grim. The results indicate that most students didn’t make the state’s cut-off for college and career readiness. By its benchmarks, 62.8 percent of New Haven’s public school students are lagging in English (three-fifths of them, severely) and 85.4 percent are behind in math (half, severely).

To boost scores, district officials are integrating strategies throughout the curriculum, linking students to online test-prep programs and studying what’s working in individual schools to duplicate or eliminate systemwide. While they hope the initiatives will make them more competitive with the suburbs, they said, noted that persistent poverty, cultural barriers and transience will always challenge New Haven and other high-needs districts.

“If you look at any of the state scores, the averages for racial minorities, poverty, [English-language learners], special education [students] and so forth are always lower. The fact that we have more of those kids means we have more of a challenge,” said Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer.

This year, New Haven’s average score —  891 points —  climbed three points higher than last year. That’s way behind the state’s average of 1031 points. To put those numbers in comparison, most University of Connecticut freshmen scored above 1130 on the SAT; Quinnipiac University, 980; Albertus Magnus College, 960; and Southern Connecticut University, 830.

Among the SAT’s two sections, each of which are worth 800 points, the average score in the Elm City was 458 in English language arts (out of the state’s goal of 480 points) and 433 in math (out of the state’s goal of 530 points). Both of New Haven’s results fell far behind the average in Connecticut, by 66 points in reading and 74 points in math.

In New Haven, the disparities widen by race and socioeconomics. On English, black students scored 438 on average; Hispanic students, 440; white, 533; and Asian, 568. Similarly, on math, black students scored 416 on average; Hispanic, 414; white, 502; and Asian, 568. High-need students — classified as those who receive lunch for free or at a discount because of their families’ poverty, special education students and those learning English as a second language — scored 65 points lower in English and 56 points lower in math.

Teachers Take The Test

To boost those scores, educators have a number of strategies on deck for this school year. That started during the first week, before students arrived, when teachers were asked to take the SAT to familiarize themselves with the test.

From that, teachers are expected to start integrating questions that match the form of the test throughout the school day.

For example, the test might ask if the word “state,” as used in the passage, could mean a political entity, a phase of being, or something said? “All apply. You have to look at the context. That question stem, ‘What does the word mean?’ can be replicated,” said Simon Edgett, the school system’s head of English instruction. In a literature class, he continued, a teacher might stop in the middle of a book and ask students to define a word. “That benefits their reading ability and helps them learn context clues, but also they’re also learning the skill that can apply directly to the SAT.”

Similarly, English classes are varying their reading selection. To supplement the books that are the through-line of the year, teachers might hand out shorter pieces, like a newspaper article, a historical document, or a short story, all of which will be closer in length to what’s on the SAT.

But Edgett cautions that the district isn’t —  and shouldn’t —  be teaching to the test. “My personal philosophy is to develop the underlying skills that will help them on the test and in college and as citizens,” he said.

For test-taking strategies, students are encouraged to use their free subscription to Khan Academy, an online platform with sample questions.

Cultural Relevance

Micehlle Liu PhotoStill, reading comprehension and word problems in math can be tough for New Haven students, not only because many enter the already system behind their richer peers, but because the very topics on the SAT might not be culturally relevant.

The College Board has taken steps to close the gap, such as replacing a vocabulary section that rewarded the memorization of obscure words with one that allowed students to guess a word’s meaning by the context.

But there are still questions about the selection of reading passages. For instance, if one of the five passages students must analyze is about genetically modified foods, or GMOs, a child from Greenwich or Branford might already have a head start, officials pointed out. “That’s not necessarily a conversation at the dinner table” here in New Haven, said Michele Sherban, who oversees testing and other assessments for the district.

That’s part of the reason officials point out that the SAT’s an imperfect test of academic achievement. Most importantly, they said that the scoring is off.

There are two broad types of standardized tests that educators can administer: norm-referenced tests, which are essentially ranking systems that compare students directly to their peers, or criterion-referenced tests, which grade a student’s mastery of the material regardless of their peers. Hypothetically, all students could demonstrate command of a subject, as judged by a criterion-referenced test, but they scores might be far apart based on the number of right answers, as ranked by a norm-referenced test.

Up until quite recently, the SAT was viewed simply as a bell curve, a norm-referenced test, that aided the college admissions process. But in 2015, after Gov. Dannel Malloy determined “that there was, in fact, too much testing in 11th grade,” Connecticut became one of only a handful of states to switch over to using the test to judge proficiency. For all high-school juniors, the newly revamped SAT replaced the prior statewide test, the Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam. (The SBAC is still given to elementary and middle schoolers.) That means the SAT is now being used to judge the quality of schooling, and is factored into students’ chances of being held back from their senior year.

“It’s very difficult for us to view [the SAT] as a criterion-referenced test when it’s not,” said Kenneth Mathews, the head of the district’s math instruction. “The test is supposed to measure students who have a 75 percent chance of earning a ‘C’ in a college math class, but there’s a wide gamut between college-level algebra, advanced calculus and everything in between. The kid who got a 530 is supposed to do far better than the kid who got a 520 [just below the proficiency cut-off]. I don’t buy it.

“So, yes, there’s data that shows we’re far behind the state averages,” Mathews continued, “but the data shows we’re working to close in on the state averages.”

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posted by: Bubbe on September 8, 2017  1:27pm

“Only one public high school in New Haven outperforms the state average.” It seems to me that recognizing ESUMS as that one school and replicating its level of rigor in all New Haven public schools might solve your problem of low test scores!

posted by: GroveStreet on September 8, 2017  1:28pm

Having read about the district’s leap in graduation rates and enrollment, it seems that there are some factors that must be noted.

If you keep more kids in school, the result would seem to be that your test scores would go down. Presumably, those who are opting to stay in school rather than dropping out might be the lowest band of performers. A sudden influx of low-band graduates is a good thing, but it would lessen impact elsewhere. Just as having more drop-outs would raise your test scores.

It seems that comparisons need to be a bit more nuanced to understand the full scope of what is happening.

posted by: Bubbe on September 8, 2017  1:36pm

“Only one public high school in New Haven outperforms the state average.” Why not recognize the achievement by naming the school, ESUMS, and using its expertise in rigorous instruction across the curriculum in all New Haven public schools? If ONE school gets it right, so can others. All it takes is hard work!!

posted by: Noteworthy on September 8, 2017  3:21pm

Bottom Line Notes:

So kids are graduating and Mayor Harp takes credit for that - the unfortunate news is that their education is so poor that they are unprepared for college. Are they prepared for life? No. So why celebrate graduation rates? Because it makes for good political theater.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 8, 2017  5:02pm

You want to Bump Up Low SAT Scores.put them students in a caribbean home.

posted by: Atticus Shrugged on September 8, 2017  5:14pm

ESUMs is a great school but it is a magnet school and shouldn’t be used as a metric for other non-magnet schools that don’t get as many out-of-district or wealthier students.  You have to apply to ESUMs so you’ve either got students or parents who are more involved, which will likely impact their ability to learn.

It would be great to get more nuanced data regarding the impact of the increased attendance on test scores.  With that said, it would be hard to measure who would have dropped out as that is likely difficult to predict with a level of statistical certainty as you’re not allowing students to drop out.

While not letting NHPS off the hook, I’d like to see a measurement for how parental involvement increases test scores.  A lot of the problem may start at home.  Some parents can’t read or help their children with homework and are unable or unwilling to ask for help.  If NHPS has kids for 30 to 40 hours of 168 hours in a week, most learning and exposure to critical thinking will occur outside of school. 

There is no way that NHPS can fix the socio-economic divide of having parents with low vocabulary, math, or participatory skills.  We should be thinking critically not just on how to educate students but how to bring their parents into the fold to cure the village, which is ultimately responsible for raising the child.

posted by: AliceB on September 8, 2017  5:32pm

“GroveStreet” is absolutely correct. Nothing more to be said.

posted by: GroveStreet on September 8, 2017  7:41pm

Noteworthy. Your analysis is ridiculous. You just generalized against 22,000 kids, at least half of whom think far deeper than you.

posted by: Brutus2011 on September 9, 2017  1:28am

One word.


posted by: Bill Saunders on September 9, 2017  3:06am

Grove Street,

Your nuanced ‘inside-a-tude’ only proves that you are once again posting on the Company Dime for The Company…..

posted by: GroveStreet on September 9, 2017  3:30pm

Bill… Thanks again for eschewing logic.

If I was inside, do you think that perhaps the district response would have been different than, “We deal with poverty?”

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on September 9, 2017  9:26pm

It might be worth noting that ESUMS students were able to beat the state average with an average score of 1074 at least in part because of the high level of competence of their teachers.  Magnet school or not, this is an argument against watering down the academic standards for teachers everywhere.

posted by: 1644 on September 10, 2017  10:19am

Jill:  Our current teacher qualification process is not geared to high standards.  It is geared to pushing the maximum number of candidates through various gates getting paper qualifications which have little bearing on actual competence.  Education majors generally come from the lower half of their high school classes. Traditional teacher colleges, like SCSU, as noted above, have low standards for admission.  Master’s Degrees, required in Connecticut, have little bearing on a teacher’s effectiveness.  The requirement, does, however, insure continued faculty employment at schools like SCSU.  Like a high school diploma, a master’s degree does not signify any particular competence or motivation, just having gone through the motions.
  The best schools in this state, which are independent, traditionally do not hire certified teachers, but smart people who want to live and work with young people.  I recall my third grade French teacher, a Parisian war-bride, who may not have had any post-secondary education,  but had a Parisian passion for perfect French. The best teacher for software engineering at ESUMS may someone with no certification, but a down-sized software engineer.

posted by: Brutus2011 on September 10, 2017  10:22pm

Teacher effectiveness is not the only reason for low SAT scores. It is only a partial reason with socio-economic status (SES) being a more significant factor.

Class and school building learning environments are also a significant factor to student outcomes.

Ask the question: “How do human beings learn?”

You will find that teachers are not to blame.

Teachers are just the most convenient scapegoats for folks who really don’t know what they are talking about.

I suggest you spend time in a New Haven school to see things first hand—no snarkiness (sic ) intended.

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on September 11, 2017  6:55am

Atticus Shrugged,

Given, I concede, that is objectively paradoxical, the ability to read and write does not necessarily prevent one from thinking critically even if it dramatically inhibits a refinement of cognition from an impoverished base of knowledge. Considering the strict social canon taught in today’s schools, with its absolute prohibitions on dissent, one could argue that it is the prevailing ideological principles that are preventing our children from even daring to think critically today. Hence, the success of the home-school movement. That being said, I have often struggled too trying to understand what I think is at least part of your sentiment.  How do you impart a desire in one to participate in the joy of developing their intellect so that he can more easily order his will towards beauty, goodness, and truth? New Haven is ripe with the high-cultural means towards that end, independent of socio-economic status, and yet the necessary wonder about the world that must entail the beginning of the journey just cannot be conveyed to those who have been brought up to think that mere bread and circuses are the fulfillment of the dreams.

posted by: Brutus2011 on September 11, 2017  12:34pm

For those interested in perhaps thinking about this issue systemically, see:

The Growth of Bureaucracy in School Systems
Author(s): Dean Harper
Source: American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Jul., 1965), pp. 261-271
Published by: American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Inc.
Stable URL:

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on September 11, 2017  1:20pm


Thanks for the tip.  Here is a link to an absolute classic about education in general.  It is a terrific read for those who teach and those who are interested in what we have lost as a culture from the lack therefrom.  I can not recommend it enough.


posted by: Brutus2011 on September 11, 2017  4:51pm

Timothy G. ORourke Jr.,

Thanks for this. I agree.

posted by: JCFremont on September 12, 2017  8:09am

I agree with Brutus, Schools have never looked into how children learn, instead they concoct national testing formulas that are just more of the same. Constructing new buildings that are suppose to “change learning as we know it but merely put a new package with the same problems. None of this ever looks at the individual student, why can some students give you the correct answer of a complex math problem with little or no work shown, while others, no matter how much repetition is drilled have trouble following the equation especially on tests? In all subjects people [Children] learn differently, I don’t see the Educational Industrial Complex ever formulating that concept. Bottom line, Teachers are often no different than Athletic coaches, they gravitate to the stars hoping to bask in their glory, or appreciate the ones less talented but out work their more natural talented teammates, those in the middle? Top middle get by, lower middle fall behind. 
Three-Fifths brings up the elephant in the room. How many resources financial, administrative and classroom time has been spent on not melting the influx of “diverse cultures” into the system but specializing the system for them. And in whose classrooms are they most often placed in? oh but they are all “dreamers” the best of the best of their former countries all ready for school and able to go straight to the head of the class isn’t that right?