Schools want more kids in AP. How will they choose? Think No. 2 pencil

At a time when push-back against testing is at an all-time high, Palm Beach County school administrators have added a test for all of the district’s 27,000 eighth- and ninth-graders: the PSAT.

They hope the Preliminary SAT will help identify thousands of students who could be taking on more college preparatory classes but, according to piles of data, aren’t.

Florida has long required all high school sophomores take the test.

Created by the College Board, the PSAT is billed as a predictor of college readiness and good preparation for its cousin, the SAT. The nearly three-hour exam given again in grade 11 is also the gatekeeper to the National Merit Scholarships of $2,500 per student.

>>RELATED: Study finds disparities in PBC schools but can’t answer a big question

The PSAT for grades 8 and 9 is new, debuting nationally last year in hundreds of districts.

It is not a state-mandated test in those grades. But will asking all eighth and ninth graders to sit for this test fix the missed opportunities that local educators agree exists?

Last year, the district gave testing eighth-graders a try, but not until later in the year — too late to use the results for the next year’s schedule planning.

IDing strengths, weaknesses

The College Board bills the so-called PSAT 8/9 as an introduction to the “suite” of its tests. Students don’t just get a score, they get detailed feedback on their strengths and weaknesses before they get to the college entrance exams.

The results should also tip off teachers, principals and guidance counselors earlier to students who are ready for the more advanced material found in courses including Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, Superintendent Robert Avossa and his staff argue.

Until now, too many of the leads supplied by the PSAT in grade 10, for example, have been ignored.

According to the district, only about 60 percent of the girls and 49 percent of the boys whose 10th grade PSAT indicated they had potential to take on tougher classes actually enrolled in them. When the numbers are broken down additionally by race, the picture is more bleak. Only 45 percent of black girls and 32 percent of black boys who scored “with potential” wound up in a college prep course.

Avossa has said on more than one occasion that the district underserves its very best students. For example, too few students qualify as National Merit scholars.

“We have built barriers. We have to take those barriers down and give kids an opportunity to learn,” Avossa told board members who approved nearly $630,000 to pay for the additional tests this year.

“This has been going on for a long time,” agreed board member Debra Robinson. “To me, the thing that is most important is what we do with the information.”

‘My baby believes in himself’

Robinson recalled former Suncoast High Principal Gloria Crutchfield insisting all students, including Robinson’s son, enroll in AP courses. Robinson said she pushed back in tears, concerned her son wasn’t ready for that level of work.

“(The principal) said to me, ‘He’ll get a C in whatever he takes, so let him get a C in AP.’ Then he gets a B. He wants to take more AP classes. I go in the bathroom and cry again because now my baby believes in himself. Now he’s a civil engineer. I take it right back to Dr. Crutchfield, demanding everyone take AP classes,” Robinson said, in an appeal from the board dias that recommendations from the PSAT tests be heeded.

Avossa said the district will have to ease into any sort of mandate that makes placement in these courses an expectation, not an exception.

He said the system has to work with students who “have the intellect but maybe haven’t shown the effort.”

Also driving more students into those challenging courses is bound to drive down the percentage of students who score well in each class.

That can be a disincentive for teachers who earn cash from national initiatives for their success teaching AP courses. Some schools, including Boca Raton High, have tackled this by giving the students extra support, stretching the course over two class periods instead of one, for example, Avossa said.

The district also needs to prepare more teachers to head the more challenging classes.

But at a time when more colleges are allowing students to apply without an SAT or ACT score, does steering students to harder classes require another test?

“The rationale they’ve laid out is hard to argue with, but what’s the bigger picture? We know there’s a lot of testing going on. Is this going to add to teacher or student stress levels?” asked Maria Ferguson, executive director for the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. “Is there a way we can take away some other tests and get the value of this test? If I felt this test was a priority, I would find a way to tease out tests that weren’t providing value.”

Other tests removed

The district’s performance accountability chief, Mark Howard, says that in the past year, the district has done just that.

In middle and high school, fall diagnostic testing was removed. The district also stopped hitting high schoolers twice mid-year with both winter semester exams and winter diagnostics, Howard said.

Parents and students will have the ability to opt out of the PSAT 8/9. And a poor score on the test will not prevent a student from taking an advanced course, staff told Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri.

Avossa and his staff are hoping parents embrace the benefits when it comes time to test on Oct. 19.

College Board has teamed with the online giant Khan Academy to give any student who takes the PSAT a personal account with access to the academy’s practice tests and personalized lessons in areas where students need work. Students will also be eligible for the nationally known Duke Talent Identification Program – Duke TIP, which offers summer camps, courses, scholar weekends and more.

Said Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen: “There is a huge upside.”

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