First Person

SAT Angst

Do you know that feeling of excitement-turned-nervousness, that rumbling in your gut before you take your driver’s license test, that fluttering before your blind date shows up or the results of your pregnancy test appear?

As the novice director of a college prep program in a high school with paralyzingly low SAT scores historically — between 660-720 on math and critical reading combined — and as someone who threw the sink at trying to move those numbers skyward, that’s how I am feeling today, when we find out the results of our students’ Jan. 22 SAT exam.

The decision to go all-out on SAT prep was not easy — on average, our 11th-graders read two to three years below grade level, and I considered whether their time (and our program’s money) would be better spent focusing on remedial skills than learning test-taking strategies and far-flung vocabulary words.

Yet the series of events that unfolded once I committed to sustained SAT prep and the challenges we subsequently encountered encompass larger themes present in the current state of urban, public schools that serve low-income students. Issues of differentiation, competency, fairness, accountability and ownership all came up in our preparation, and they will be issues I return to in future months in “The College Conundrum,” a biweekly survey of the landscape from my perch as a college prep program director at a small, traditional public high school in the South Bronx.

The prep we eventually provided was dictated by — surprise! — money, as one quote we received was three times the price of the other. We went with the less expensive option, but even this option was only made possible by the largesse of a private donor.

In any case, twice a week, for the 12 weeks leading up to the Jan. 22 SAT administration, all but two 11th-graders received prep that alternately focused on critical reading and math practice problems. (The two students who did not participate were clear that they did not wish to attend college, and therefore did not want to or need to attend a SAT prep course.) At the beginning, middle, and end of the twelve weeks, we offered students optional, full-length practice tests on Saturday mornings. More than half of the 11th-grade class took at least one such test — and a third took two or more.

The practice tests and other actions were driven by an education version of realpolitik. Once I committed to prep, my locus of control did not include substantial skill remediation. Rather, I could make the most of what the students were working with, and I therefore focused on periphery factors such as students’ endurance and pacing — hence the full-length practice tests — and logistical issues.

We ordered “Good luck” banners and posted them in the hallway after teachers scribbled encouraging messages. We distributed individualized packets that included an admission ticket, handwritten “good luck” note, public transportation voucher, list of peers’ testing sites, calculator, two sharpened pencils, photo ID reminder, and public transit directions that would get a student from home to his/her testing site before 7:30 a.m. (thanks, Google Maps).

The morning of the exam, a coordinated effort among college prep staff and school teachers commenced at 5:30 a.m. to ensure all students were up and en route to their various testing sites. We followed an initial wake-up call or text message — the students listed their preference and contact information during a previous class — with a confirmation call.

Crazy? Perhaps. Did we help our students? In a short-term sense, absolutely. Last year, 40 of 59 students (67 percent) failed to show up for their first sitting of the SAT, thereby wasting one of two possible fee waivers. This year, 57 of 60 students — 95 percent — actually took the test.

Looking longer-term, I am less convinced that my decision to teach SAT prep instead of skills remediation was most beneficial for our students, or that my plan to contact each students’ home helped them become more self-reliant and mature. The arrival of scores today could sway my feelings, of course, though my frustration with the SAT and with the quality of the students’ previous education will endure.

But I digress. For now, cross your fingers, please. I’ll share my students’ scores and my own further thoughts soon.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede