Judging 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.
Still, 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.”