How Are We Defining College Readiness?

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The New York City Department of Education took a bold step recently when revealing for the first time how well high schools are preparing students for higher education or well-paying careers.

According to information included in the latest school report cards, only one in four students who enter high school in New York City is ready for college after four years, and fewer than half enroll.

DESCRIPTIONRachel Elkind Rashid F. Davis

Apparently the city’s measure of college readiness is based largely on data from the City University of New York, but that baseline may not be pushing students or schools far enough.

How would students fare if they were expected to meet the standards of a private college?

Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, where I was a principal from August 2006 to March 2011 (I am now at the new Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn), was founded in partnership with the Manhattan College School of Engineering, a private college in the Bronx.

BETA, as the school is known, was part of the New Visions New Century High Schools initiative that was partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The school had a start-up grant of $400,000 to use over the first four years, and part of the money was used to pay for a Saturday SAT program.

BETA opened in 2004 with an open admissions policy, and the focus was to prepare underrepresented populations (no test required or grade point average) to enter college and pursue majors in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), using the students' performance on the SAT I and their high school transcript as indicators of college readiness and to predict their success in college.

I was the school’s third principal, and in trying to create a college-ready school culture at BETA, we focused on the following:

  • Having students aspire to complete the advanced Regents diploma (which includes four years of math and science, and three years of foreign language).
  • Having students retest in English and math until a 75 was earned. (The target of scoring 80 on the algebra Regents was not set for schools yet.)
  • Having students take at least one advanced placement course before graduating.
  • Having students attend a Saturday SAT academy. (Financing from the Gates grant ended in 2009, and as a result of citywide budget cuts during 2009, 2010 and 2011, the Saturday SAT academy also ended.)

Some people could not understand why we were outperforming traditional predictors for success. For example, the mean score at BETA for the math SAT for black students in 2008 was 453, while the national mean score for black students was 426. The following year, BETA’s math SAT mean score for black students was 460 while the national mean score remained flat at 426.

Also in 2009, BETA’s mean SAT math score for Hispanics was 467, higher than the national mean score for groups that included Mexican, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican and other Hispanic students.

Our focus was being driven by our private college partnership, and so it required us to have multiple measures to look at college readiness that were slightly different from how the progress report was rating us as a school.

The results show that a school’s academic culture is slightly different when its students are prepared to compete for admission to private colleges, and the challenge to students becomes even greater when the focus of the school is engineering.