This is a test

Some high schools soar, others struggle with SATs

Last month, the state released the average SAT scores for each high school in the state for the 2014-2015 school year, allowing residents to compare how their district did on the standardized test, which many colleges use in evaluating applicants.

Not surprisingly, within Hudson County, Jersey City’s McNair Academic High School – a public magnet school that draws the top students from that city– had the highest average in the county and one of the highest in the state, 1848 out of a possible 2400 on the reading, math, and writing totaled. According to state data, 100 percent of its students took the test.

Hudson County’s public countywide high schools, which require an application process, such as High Tech High School and County Prep, did not have their results in yet, but some tend to score in the 1600s.

After McNair, the next highest averages were Infinity Institute in Jersey City (a charter school), Secaucus High School, and Weehawken High school, with only Infinity’s average (1521) above the state average of 1508. Secaucus and Weehawken were below it (1476 and 1455 respectively).

Schools on the low end included Jersey City’s Ferris and Snyder High Schools, achieving 1046 and 1093 respectively. Hoboken Charter School, Hoboken High School, and Dickinson High School received scores of 1191, 1219 and 1234 respectively.

Bayonne High School’s average was a 1354, North Bergen’s was a 1311, and Memorial’s (West New York) was a 1243. The other charter and regular public schools fell in the middle.

The New Jersey Department of Education’s annual school performance reports for 2014-15 revealed that the statewide average for SAT scores fell by six points in the 2014-15 academic year, dropping from 1514 to 1508. Some attribute this to rising participation rates, which means more students are encouraged to take the test, even if some may not be prepared. College Board’s annual exam results in 2015 revealed a larger and more diverse pool of high school students taking the SAT, PSAT and AP exams than ever before.

In most area schools, participation was high, but some schools (Bayonne, North Bergen, and Weehawken) did not reach the 80 percent goal set by the Department of Education.

The 2014-15 school year revealed progress for some schools.

Hoboken Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Johnson said Hoboken Junior Senior High School’s scores are slowly increasing. For the first time, the school’s composite SAT average surpassed the average of the schools in its peer group, which consists of schools that have similar demographics.

“We’re now outperforming those schools,” Johnson said. Hoboken exceeded the peer average of 1190 with a composite score of 1219.

“While we were happy with the growth, we’re still not satisfied with where our students’ performance is, as measured by the SAT,” she added.

The new SAT

Starting this spring, the College Board has gone back to the old system of administering just the math and reading portions of the test, with a top score of 1600 total. Students can take an optional writing portion, but it’s not required.

Some parents use the SAT scores as a test of their school district, and it helps them gauge whether their children will perform well enough to have a shot at a top college.

Allen Pascual, the Director of Student Personnel from North Bergen High School’s guidance department, said the SAT changes may help improve the school’s averages.

“Most colleges and universities look at two scores – math and reading,” he said. “Writing is not weighed as heavily.”

Writing is often the hardest section for students. A state profile report of SAT results from College Board from 2015 revealed that the writing section had the lowest average score out of the three sections.

Pascual said the new format will also be beneficial to English Language Learning (ELL) students.

“We have a lot of ELL students who have been here for two or three years and speak other languages at home such as Spanish or Gujarati [an Indian dialect],” Pascual said. “The writing portion always tends to be challenging for them, even though they can excel in reading. I’m glad the writing portion is optional now.”

Meanwhile, in the reading section, the focus is shifting from short stories to primary source documents, according to Johnson. Starting from the middle school level, Johnson said English and reading classes in Hoboken are emphasizing evidence-based arguments. As the reading material becomes more rigorous, that means “more close reading, less skimming,” she said. More practice will ultimately lead to more endurance for extracting evidence from longer reading passages, Johnson said.

Johnson said the Hoboken school district is working to improve mathematical fluency, starting from the elementary level.

“It’s really critical that kids become less reliant on calculators and more reliant on automaticity,” she said.

Weehawken Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Zywicki said the high school students prepare for the test using online programs in addition to Princeton Review SAT Prep. Some of these programs are Newsela, which teaches reading comprehension through news articles, and Mathspace, a math skills program that incorporates individualized feedback into lessons.

Ushering in a digital age

Because state standardized tests such as the PARCC are offered online, school administrators anticipate the SAT eventually becoming only computerized. In 2016, the test is being given both in print and online.

Zywicki said, “We worked quickly with the district to make sure every student from seventh through twelfth grade would have a Chromebook” to practice their on-line skills. Johnson said Hoboken has also started using Chromebooks to help students become comfortable with digital testing.

Revamping resources

The Hudson County area has always had low test scores compared to most of the state, but school officials say they have been working to improve their resources. One trend among public schools is starting SAT preparation as early as possible.

Johnson said, “We now administer the PSAT at no charge to all ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders during the school day, providing them with exposure to the test from the time they’re freshmen in high school.”

The PSAT is a practice test whose scores can be used in determining National Merit Scholarships. The scores are not sent to colleges with applications, though.

Johnson said that two years ago, Hoboken only offered the PSAT to juniors. Zywicki said Weehawken students can begin taking the PSAT in eighth grade.

Both Hoboken and Weehawken use Princeton Review SAT preparation programs.

Pascual said that about seven years ago, North Bergen High School was pushed by the Board of Education to improve SAT scores and began to search for an SAT Prep program to partner with. Eventually, the high school partnered with Revolution Prep, a private tutoring service. Funded by the Board of Education, SAT prep classes are free for students and offered during after-school hours. In addition to lessons, the program also offers practice exams.

“Before we started this SAT prep, our scores just weren’t there,” Pascual said. Referring to the practice exams, he said student averages on the exam have increased by 200 to 400 points between the first and last sitting.

Emphasizing the importance of participating in practice SAT exams, Pascual said, “These exams help students figure out their strengths and weaknesses before the actual test.”

“We’re not at a disadvantage, Pascual said. “Our students have a lot of opportunities.”

North Bergen has also implemented SAT skills into language arts and math classes, Pascual said.

The district’s average score dropped by 44 points from the previous year’s 1355, but North Bergen’s SAT averages have consistently stayed above 1300 for the past five years.

Achievement over aptitude

One issue that arises for many high school students across the nation is getting good grades in their school yet scoring lower than expected on the SAT.

“What we’ve seen in the past is a situation where kids who are very high achievers and motivated students would have high grades, but unfortunately, there was a bit of disequilibrium between the grades they had in school and their SATs,” Johnson explained. “I see a lot of kids who do great in school but feel completely defeated when the SAT scores come out.”

“I’m curious to see what the data will look like over the next year or two.” – Christine Johnson, Hoboken

“It seems like some of the changes in the SAT seem to be conducive to achievement and not aptitude,” she continued. “The ACT has already been that way for years.”

While aptitude tests assess students’ likelihood to succeed in school in the future, achievement tests focus on what students already know.

 “I’m curious to see what the data will look like over the next year or two,” she added. “And I think we’ll get a better sense of whether these changes can be considered positive, or potentially, changes that College Board might go back and revise.”

Superintendents Clara Brito Herrera of West New York and Silvia Abbato of Union City did not return phone calls by press time. 

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