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Mike Piscal

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Let's Add SAT Scores Into the Mix When Holding High Schools Accountable

Posted: 06/19/09 12:30 PM ET

As students throughout California graduate this month, many will still lack acceptance into college this fall. In fact, six in ten high school students here in Los Angeles Unified won't attend college. It's time that our policymakers ask themselves: Are we holding our high schools to the right accountability measures that get students accepted to college?

While the California Standards Tests (CSTs) is one of the greatest achievements in education policy, embodying transparency and accountability about a school's success to the public, most would be hard-pressed to explain what the test means to students' futures.

Indeed, our model of accountability hits a snag in high school. The CSTs drive curriculum, as educators are pressured to deliver high scores in high school, but in many cases, it works against preparing students for the tests that colleges actually care about -- the SATs. When the SAT results of all high schools were released in April, they were met with a deafening silence. There was no ensuing fanfare that greeted the release of the CST scores.

Let's acknowledge that students' SAT scores, their performance on Advanced Placement tests and their grade point averages are the real factors that determine whether students get into college or attract scholarships. And it is the foundation of college preparation laid in high school that is a key contributor to whether students succeed in college.

California's colleges and universities spend tens of millions each year on remedial courses for students who get to college. Federal policy is moving to address this by demanding that our students are better prepared in high school so that they get into college without the need for remedial classes.

California needs the accountability provided by the CSTs, but we also need a policy adjustment. High school success needs to be tied to student performance on the SATs and AP tests, and our high schools should be incentivized to take these additional measurements seriously.

This change is particularly needed for schools serving students of color -- African-Americans and Latinos -- who have for years struggled on the losing end of an unrelenting achievement gap. What is more important than giving students who are most at risk of dropping out the chance at higher education and well-paying jobs?

Colleges are clamoring for greater diversity, meaning scholarship opportunities for low-income minority youth abound when they are qualified. Students who test the best receive the most scholarship money and get into top colleges.

The charter school movement is on the forefront of this issue, opening high schools in higher concentrations in low-income, underserved urban neighborhoods with steep dropout rates. These schools are adopting college-prep curriculums with great success.

We at ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles are offering colleges academically well-prepared African-American students from the inner city. We are also offering the community future leaders and, for those candidates, unlimited academic and financial opportunities. With the latest SAT results, we are shining the spotlight on this policy shortcoming of solely focusing on the CSTs.

A network of 13 public charter schools that serve predominantly African-American students, we boasted the highest SAT scores of all public high schools in South Los Angeles. With 96.2 percent African-Americans in the class of 2008, we also demonstrated the largest SAT growth over two years among all LAUSD schools, with a 121-point increase.

We so focus on our SATs that our performance on the test demolished the state's three-point growth and the nation's zero-point growth. And 100 percent of our first three graduating classes were accepted to college.

How are we doing it? The same thing that elite private schools throughout the nation are doing for their predominantly upper-class students: creating high expectations and teaching a rigorous curriculum. We refuse to buy into the idea that minority students need a different curriculum -- choosing to go by the philosophy that if you only feed kids oatmeal, they won't develop muscles.

It's time for our public high schools to make it a priority to get all children prepared for college, academically and financially. Children of color are disproportionately under-represented in our colleges and universities, and this must change. The reality of what it takes to get into college must be reconciled with testing requirements enforced through policy. Focusing the high school principals of California on a test (the CST) that does not lead to greater college admission or financial aid is like endeavoring to learn French in Paris, Texas instead of Paris, France.

Bottom line, the SATs are a student's ticket to a scholarship, which for many of our low-income students may be their only opportunity to attend college. I know many want to do away with the test as culturally biased, but until that day comes or we get a better test, we must face facts: the SAT decides to a great degree who goes to what college and who gets money to pay for it.