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From Tests to Curricula: SAT Maker Ventures Into Younger Classrooms

Eighteen students gathered in Ms. Reyes’ classroom at Eximius College Preparatory Academy for their weekly CollegeEd class. One Monday, the following assignment was on the board: "Do Now: work on your final draft of the college essay." It was one of several practice application essays they would do that month.

But these students are not high school juniors or seniors. They are in seventh grade, and as close to college as they are to kindergarten.

This sort of single-minded dedication to higher education may seem driven by obsessive, affluent parents but Eximius isn't a private academy or a wealthy public school. Rather, it serves students in Morrisania in the Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. Forty-one percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Eximius’ college-centered school program is a result of its partnership with the College Board, the non-profit organization best known for overseeing the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is one of 14 College Board schools that opened in the last three years in New York City and part of a larger wave of sweeping reforms meant to increase the number of students pursuing higher education. Obtaining a college degree is more important than ever, a necessity for decent-paying employment. To accomplish this goal, Eximius and the other College Board schools are acculturating children early on to the idea that college is in their future.

“They haven’t been molded with college in mind,” said the Principal of Eximius, Tammy Smith. Parents from wealthier neighborhoods impress the importance of college on their children from birth, said Smith, but in Morrisania, most students don’t have that kind of support.

“We’re trying to create a generation that changes that sort of cultural thought,” said Smith.

Starting the process early is critical, according to Helen Santiago, the executive director of the College Board schools. In these underserved communities, most of the students will be first-time college goers. Immersing them in talk about college from sixth grade significantly improves the chance they will attend.

And so, the lessons in the CollegeEd class try to cover all topics. On some days, they review the nuts and bolts of the common application form. Other times, they cover how to pay for college. Still other lessons focus on useful “tips” and “facts”:

"Fact: Most college kids are not geniuses; they have just worked hard to get where they are."

"Tip: Don't worry about college, just get ready for it. Make studying one of your priorities."

The college seminar classes are just one of the tactics the College Board schools use to propel students toward a higher degree. Sixth graders take field trips to colleges at least once a year to get a flavor of college life. The school day is extended; classes end at 4:30 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. instead of 3:30 p.m. Bi-weekly Saturday classes are also held. At some schools, this extra day is used for core subject tutoring; at others it is reserved for community service or additional college counseling. Students are encouraged to take at least two advanced placement courses before they graduate. PSATs and SATs are administered without charge and some schools permit students to take the tests an unlimited number of times. Free test tutoring is also available for those who seek it. Next year, Principal Smith intends to start a half-day, three-week summer SAT preparation class and make it mandatory for all 11th graders.

From sixth grade on, students have free access to a Web-based program that allows them to explore possible college majors and career options. The curriculum is specially created to improve kids’ chance of college success too, building English and math skills that hundreds of educators have pinpointed as vital for first-year college success. To ensure students are prepared emotionally as well as academically, schools offer weekly teacher-directed student rap sessions called advisories.

Schools may also monitor language. According to Ann Looser, the special education teacher at Eximius, it's never if you go to college, but when you go to college. "For some it may be a junior college or a trade school," she said, but "it's been ingrained into us that all kids will amount to something."

"I didn't think about college before," said seventh grader Amy Bermadez. Now, she wants to go to New York University to study drama. She added that one of the reasons she likes NYU is the dorms, which she visited on a campus tour with her school last year. Like a typical teenager, she said, "I want to get away from my parents."

Twelve-year-old Kristably Delgado said college talk in school has led to college talk at home. Since Delgado started attending Eximius last year, her mother has begun discussing the importance of college. Delgado's mother did not finish high school.

Delgado has varied ambitions. "I might want to be a journalist or photographer or maybe an astronaut or a person that goes to exotic destinations to study animals," she said.

Under its current contract with the Office of New Schools in New York City and the $9.4 million grant it received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the College Board is scheduled to open four more schools in New York state in low-income, high-minority, urban areas. The experiment is being watched closely. Should the College Board’s approach prove to be a success, it may be one solution to the high drop-out rates in these neighborhoods.

According to the annual “Quality Counts” report issued by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, New York City has one of the lowest graduation rates of any district in the nation: only 39 percent. New York City’s goal is to increase that to 70 percent by the 2009-2010 school year. It is this goal that is pushing partnerships with private organizations such as the College Board. The rationale is that these entities provide expertise in new areas creating innovative schools that will better reach students and improve their performance. For example, the curriculum of the Asia Society schools focuses on language and international affairs. According to the Web site, the intermediary partners also offer additional monetary support.

College Board officials said they have seen a jump in math and English test scores for the students who entered their schools in sixth grade and are now in eighth grade. However, they refuse to release the data, claiming it too early to draw definitive conclusions.

Running schools was not part of the College Board's original mission. For over 100 years, it has focused on college admissions testing, creating a virtual monopoly that has only recently been threatened.

Universities used the SATs to predict whether a student could meet the academic requirements at its institution. In the last few years, however, its influence has declined. Experts denounced the test, calling it a poor predictor of performance. They argued that grades in high school measured success more accurately than the SAT ever could. A new SAT was launched in 2004 but its long length coupled with a grading snafu in October 2005, in which 4,000 student scores were underreported, led the SAT to fall out of favor. At the same time, the ACT, the rival college entrance exam, has quickly gained in popularity. In 2006, 1.47 million students took the SATs and 1.2 million took the ACT. And according to FairTest, a non-profit organization that monitors testing practices, more than 700 four-year colleges—including some that are very highly regarded—do not use the SAT or ACT to determine acceptance.

Universities that take this path have chosen to do so because studies have shown test-optional institutions gain a more diverse pool of qualified applicants, said Robert Schaeffer, the director of FairTest.  He also mentioned that more colleges are paying attention to the great "unequalizing" force of coaching.

“When a parent can afford $900 or $1,500 or $25,000 to [have a tutor] come to their summer house in the Hamptons, you can’t compare the difference between the coached kid to a kid who took the test cold,” he said. “College admission officers know that.”

W. James Popham, an expert on standardized testing and a Professor Emeritus at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, agrees. “The SATs are more about socioeconomic status than anything else,” said Popham.

Popham thinks the College Board schools are a “little fraudulent” in their attempt to get more students to take and improve their SAT scores. “If they [students at the College Board Schools] get better at this, it’s going to make their test all the more worthwhile. It’s self-serving.”

But Ganciu Attagracia, whose son attends seventh grade at Eximius, appreciates the free tests offered by the College Board. “My son’s lazy so he needs a lot of practice,” said Attagracia. “He’s getting a good education there.”

Teachers and administrators are also quick to herald the positive benefits of being associated with the College Board.

“I have the freedom to teach,” said Jane Mayers, a seventh grade English teacher at Eximius. “At other schools I had to teach to the test.” The College Board curriculum is content based. English lessons are centered on books studied and the ideas extrapolated from readings. Assessments are usually in the form of essays. “It allows me to teach and teach well,” said Mayers, by helping her pinpoint the topics students are struggling with.

Eric Mendelson, the assistant principal at Eximius also praises the board. To help staff use the tools the College Board offers and hone teaching methods, the organization provides all-day paid workshop retreats once a month.

“Hands down,” he said, “it’s the best teacher training I’ve ever received in my 10 years of teaching.”