No longer satisfied with just testing students to see if they’re ready for college, the College Board, producers of the SAT college entrance exam, has moved into select high schools with a new curriculum officials say will actually prepare poor and minority students for college.
The company has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a new high school program aimed at increasing the graduation rates and college preparedness of low-income and minority students. The four-year EXCELerator program will prepare students with the support and services — such as supplemental texts and mentoring programs — necessary to develop their skills for college.
Currently operating in three school districts in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Duval County in Jacksonville, Fla., the College Board hopes to implement the program in approximately 150 high schools across the United States. The on-time graduation rates in the predominantly minority districts the College Board is involved in are low relative to the national average. Just 52.2 percent of Chicago students graduate high school on time, according to “Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation and Rates,” a recent national report. The figure in Washington is 58.9 percent and Duval County 53.4 percent. By comparison, the national average stands at 70 percent.
“We have a keen interest in the leadership of urban school districts to change those statistics. Our primary focus is on the high schools and the work that goes on with them,” says Dr. Eric J. Smith, the College Board’s senior vice president for college readiness. “There has been an incredible amount of professional development and staff training. We’re very focused on central administration and the goals that the school district as a whole has; the adopted goals that focus on an increasing population of college-going students. Students are up to the challenge of doing college preparatory coursework. I’m very optimistic about the future as a result of this effort.”
The instructional program focuses on “3Rs” — rigor, relevance and relationships — to boost achievement.
The more rigorous and challenging curriculum will lead to more students taking Advanced Placement courses, organizers hope. Another goal is to cultivate classes impacting students trying to obtain a college education upon graduation. Organizers say students will also benefit from a more personalized relationship with teachers and guidance counselors, who can motivate and encourage the students to achieve.
The program’s objectives include reducing the dropout rate as well as increasing graduation and college attendance rates by 10 percent in each school. Directors also anticipate considerable increases in AP exam and standardized test scores.
Critics say the program’s goals are well-intentioned, but question whether the College Board should be involved.
“Programs that upgrade the quality of courses offered in inner city schools and encourage more teenagers from diverse backgrounds to consider college are definitely needed. Whether College Board is well-suited for this task remains to be seen,” says Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest. “If the EXCELerator Program ends up primarily focused on selling more standardized exams and coaching students to boost their scores, rather than truly enhancing educational quality and excellence, it will not succeed.”
At Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Washington — where 52 percent of the student population is Black, 22 percent White, 16 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Asian — the response from students and teachers has been positive, says Alex Wilson, director of academic development at Wilson. He says the AP program continues to expand, test scores are increasing and that periodic assessments will be done against standards in order to measure the success of the program, which went into effect in March of this year.
“It’s been really exciting to see our faculty focused more on the substantive readiness of our kids for college,” Wilson says. Administrators, counselors and teachers received extensive training and the newly instituted core curriculum will assist the students in mastering mathematics, science, language arts and critical thinking skills.
“It’s enhanced the values and the vision we’ve had for our school and for the students at Wilson,” Wilson says of the EXCELerator model. “It’s a comprehensive program all will be affected by. We are not going to let kids fail. We look to have every one of our students ready for college.”
The $16 million grant from the Gates Foundation will be exhausted after two and a half years, so organizers are seeking an additional $15 million to $20 million in funding. The College Board currently has money to add another 19 schools in the 2007-2008 school year, bringing the total to 30. The College Board will gradually phase out financial support of the current districts implementing EXCELerator. The organization will still remain a partner with each district, but wants schools to be able to sustain the program themselves, rather than become fiscally dependent.
–Lelita L. Cannon
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