First Person

First Days

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

As a former distance runner, I am fond of saying that teaching is a marathon and not a sprint. I’ve never captivated students with an energetic personality or by my physical presence from day one. I am not an imposing guy. I am short and slim, with a quiet voice and an introverted personality. But I’ve learned to establish my authority through work ethic, grit, and perseverance. My routine efforts, combined with an infrequent demonstration of muscle (sending a disruptive student to the dean), created a functioning classroom during my Minnesota teaching days.

I figured this strategy would also work for me at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. This was before I learned that our school had no dean. In fact, in our meetings before the start of the school year, the one question for which I could not get a straight answer was, “What do I do if I have a student who is disrupting the learning process of others?” I was more or less told not to remove a student except in the instance of a physical fight.

So I felt apprehensive going into the first day of the school year as the tenth-grade global history teacher. I decided on a first lesson that would ask students to consider how historians use evidence to construct understandings about the past. I set up five different stations and at each placed an artifact that represented something about my background, such as a high school yearbook and family picture. The plan was to put the students in groups and have them rotate through each station, examining the artifacts and drawing conclusions about this guy who would teach them for the year.

But on the first day of school, students began bouncing of the walls, screaming and embracing, before they even entered my classroom. The tenth-grade students were extremely excited to see one another after a summer apart. Having finally succeeded in ushering the students into classrooms, the noise and energy continued inside.  I struggled to make myself heard, and just when it seemed like I had their attention, another student would walk in and the riotousness would start up again. Not knowing what to do, I stood silently in front of the students, prompting one of them to ask me, “Are you afraid of black people?” I cannot remember how I answered, but I was just glad that a student was actually acknowledging my existence.  Jolted from my passivity, I spoke loudly enough above the din to explain the directions of my activity.

In four classes that day, the students eventually broke into groups and circulated around the room, but few filled in the worksheet I gave them or spent much time examining the artifacts. At the end of the day, I collected my artifacts only to discover that a couple of them had been defaced. I came home feeling angry and dejected.

The students settled down after the first couple days, but my classes continued to be dysfunctional. In mid-October, I sent an email to my colleagues, which was a veritable cry for help. It read, in part:

. . . To be blunt, some of my classes are chaos . . . I have attempted both structured and unstructured activities . . . I have tried to keep them after school, to wait to begin class until it is quiet, to speak to them via typing on the computer, [to call parents] and to speak to them one-on-one . . .. Students find it easy to take advantage of me and they have pushed the envelope for 5 weeks without real consequence . . . I believe I can generate interest in most of the topics I teach, but the students must meet me halfway by maintaining an orderly classroom . . .

A day later, I got a reply from the principal.  He praised me for my honesty, offered some empathy, and said my “voice and truth are something that can galvanize your colleagues.” He also offered to give me some one-on-one support if I wanted it.

I felt affirmed by this response, and promptly wrote back to take him up on his offer. I specifically asked for suggestions about how to begin and end classes, and how to mark transitions within lessons. But he had something else in mind.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.