Bronx Beat Online

January 15, 1996

Low SAT Scores Can't Hold Them Back

At an alternative school, students challenge the notion that a high score is the ticket to college.

by Anna Gorman

During his evaluation period at University Heights High School in the West Bronx, Alexander Martinez spoke with a slight shake in his voice. He told his teacher, classmates, and a few guests, how he built a cardboard glider. "I was the acting plane designer for Boeing," said Martinez, who emigrated from Colombia six years ago. "And I decided to design the Concorde, the world's fastest passenger plane."

He showed them his blueprints, explained how he learned Newton's laws of gravity, and he read part of his essay on how planes fly. He said working in a group made him learn how to cooperate with others. "When my friends wanted to test the glider behind the school building," said Martinez, "I explained to them that there was not enough wind velocity."

After brief deliberation, the group rewarded Martinez with a D, for distinction, the highest grade possible. Even the letter grades do not have traditional meaning at this alternative high school.

Few schools in New York more embody the national controversy about how best to educate students, and how to measure what they have learned. Last year, students at University Heights High School recorded the lowest average score in the city on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, an exam traditionally used as a predictor of success in college. Yet 90 percent of the school's graduates went to college, many to the campuses of the City University and State University of New York.

"We're not sending kids to Harvard," says Peter Coffey, who taught at University Heights for four years and is now a "team director," or supervisor of several teachers. "But they are getting into schools."

In March 1995, the New York City Board of Education reported that the average verbal score for University Heights students was 286 out of 800 and the average math score was 287 out of 800. The statewide average, according to the State Department of Education, is 419 on verbal and 473 on math. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the test, automatically gives a 200 on each section.

But University Heights teachers and administrators say that the SAT does not reflect the ability or learning potential of their students. "The SAT only measures one aspect of the kids' talents," says Nancy Mohr, the principal. "If we measure their talents in broader ways, we can see that our students are quite talented."

Mohr put her ideas to practice in 1986, when she became involved in the establishment of University Heights High School on the Bronx Community College campus. She says she knew what was not working in the public school system, and she wanted to try something different. In her view, students were not learning basic morals and values. Nor were they coming out of high school prepared for college.

University Heights was one of the first member schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools, an association that now includes 900 alternative schools nationwide and is run by Theodore Sizer, an education professor at Brown University. The school is also a member of the Center for Collaborative Education, which includes 12 schools in New York City and works to advance school-reform efforts. Now about 400 students attend University Heights High School for an average of 2.5 years. Many of the students have transferred from other New York City high schools because of disciplinary problems.

The coalition bases its alternative education on the progressive ideas espoused by John Dewey in the 1930s. The schools teach basic subjects in an interdisciplinary way, and adjust class programs to the students' individual interests and needs. "We don't believe in the English is English and math is math model here," says Coffey. Rather, the teachers instruct the students on seven "domains," such as "communicating, crafting, and reflecting," or "taking responsibility for myself and others."

The alternative high schools also espouse the ideal that students cannot learn the traditional disciplines -- math, science, history -- without first learning how to learn. Sizer says that while the "learning curve is quite steep" for students in alternative high schools, many start out with limited knowledge in math and science. He says, "They struggle because they start behind." Sizer says students learn how to learn by becoming comfortable with themselves, their teachers, and their fellow students, and by grasping core values and beliefs. They then can begin to enjoy learning, says Sizer, and associate what they learn with their daily lives.

Three years ago, Walton High School in the University Heights neighborhood of the Bronx expelled Yahaina Roman, 19, for fighting repeatedly. "I used to beat people up for fun," said Roman. She says she used to skip class frequently and "just wander around." After being expelled, Roman started at University Heights High School, where she developed a close relationship with her teacher. "I don't get into fights here," says Roman. "I can now communicate without getting into arguments." Not only has Roman been keeping her fists to herself, she has also been spending more time in school than out of it. She compares doing her schoolwork to learning how to ride a bicycle. "If you want to learn how to ride a bike, you ain't gonna just get on and go," says Roman. "You gotta focus. It's the same with school. You gotta put your mind to what you're doing." Roman says she has been doing her work, so she can go to college and become a child psychologist.

University Heights High School does not follow conventional methods of teaching or grading. The students remain with the same teacher, or "family group leader," throughout the day. "We focus on the intellect and the safety of the student," says Sizer, "so they do not get beat up in the halls and are not humiliated by being shuffled around all day from teacher to teacher." The students also rarely take the state Regents exams, and they do not receive grades or credits for their classes. Rather, teachers, peers, and "critical friends," such as college professors and parents, judge the students' progress through "roundtables." At a roundtable, a student presents a cover letter and his or her portfolio, a collection of past and present work. The work has to fit into one of the school's seven areas of study. Paul Allison, who helped start up the high school, says that "any specialist -- whether an artist, an accountant, an engineer, an architect, a nurse, a police officer, an athlete -- should be able to find his or her professional areas of interest and inquiry within the domains." After the student has mastered each of these, he or she may be eligible for graduation.

The domains are intended to teach math, science, reading, and writing skills through a framework of critical thinking and moral values. For example, within the domain entitled "thinking critically and questioning," the school expects students to present work that shows the "use of the scientific method, literature, and mathematics," as well as the development of "good judgment by looking at other points of view."

Joey Tollinchi, 17, says his mother decided to send him to University Heights rather than John F. Kennedy, the public school in Joey's zone, so he wouldn't get into trouble. "In junior high school, I wasn't looking for trouble," says Tollinchi. "It would come to me." Joey says he skipped school once or twice a week and often fought. "My mom knew if I went to JFK, I would skip three times out of a week," says Tollinchi.

Despite his frequent fighting, Joey says he was a nerd in junior high school, and still spends a lot of time on his schoolwork. For Tollinchi's last portfolio, he made a miniature rocket. In the process, he said, he read extensively about outer space and rockets, and used geometry and algebra to make all the measurements for the rocket. He also explained that he had to learn how to accept mistakes, after he made a measurement incorrectly and the pieces of the rocket did not fit together. Tollinchi wants to attend the College of Aeronautics in Queens. "I thought the work was fun and challenging," he said. "And it will help me prepare for college. Especially learning how to present stuff and take responsibility for it."

Many parents consider the roundtables and portfolios to be an effective way for their students to collect work, reflect on it, and express it. Penny Brown takes care of her niece, Camille, an 18-year-old University Heights student and mother of two. Brown says the school inspired Camille to become more aware about topics of sexuality and AIDS and write poetry about being a young mother. In a poem entitled "Diary of a Teenage Mother," Camille wrote, "Three years ago I decided to have this child/ Now I wish I had waited a while/ All of the appointments are driving me crazy/ There's no time to play and be lazy." Camille presented that poem and others in a portfolio that emphasized her writing skills. Camille's aunt says, "How can you really capture a person's abilities in a grade? A roundtable captures what is inside a person."

Although many students, teachers, and parents says that the roundtables and portfolios are a good measure of the students' knowledge and potential, some college admissions offices do not hold the same view. Debra Parolo, director of admissions for the City University of New York system, says that she does not know if the portfolios predict success in college, but even if they do, she doesn't have the time to analyze each one. "It's very difficult for a huge university to look at the portfolio system because [the portfolios] are highly individualized," says Parolo. "We have to treat all the applicants equally." Parolo explains that it is difficult to judge students without standardized tests and records, especially students in alternative high schools who usually don't have a four-year record because they may have been kicked out of public schools.

Like many alternative high schools, University Heights was originally established as a school of last resort. Coffey says some of the students come from families with parents who are alcoholics, are drug addicts, or are dying from AIDS. "They have a lot of outside pressures," says Coffey. "And often times, they already have two feet out the door." Allison says the experience the students have at University Heights helps them make personal connections with peers and teachers, enabling them to become more confident about their learning. "[The students] redefine themselves as able and effective learners, after having negative experiences in public schools," he says.

The student bodies of the original alternative high schools were only made up of "older, more shut-out" students, according to Sizer. But now, alternative high schools, including University Heights, are becoming schools of choice for students without behavior and learning problems. Sizer explains that this might be due to the high number of students who graduate from alternative schools and go on to college. "The schools which were set up for the desperate are now open to the less desperate," says Sizer, "which just shows the inadequacies of the New York City public school system."

Despite the school's policy of teaching basic math, writing, and reading skills through the domains, the students are still scoring poorly on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. These low scores reflect both University Heights' teaching priorities and SUNY's financial-aid system, according to University Heights administrators.

Time in the classroom spent teaching the students how to think critically, through one-on-one reading and writing exercises, may infringe on time needed to teach basic math and science. "You can't do it all," says Coffey. "Who is to say what's more important? I would love if our kids scored higher, but would I stop my class about values and ethics to teach algebraic algorithms for the SAT? No. Some may not have the algorithms, but they can take knotty problems and solve them."

The school also de-emphasizes the importance of the SAT. Sizer says the test predicts only two things: "The income of the parents and the freshman year grades." Preparation courses for the exam often cost $600 to $700. Because the school and the coalition do not value the test as a way to measure the students' talents, they do not spend any of the teaching time helping the students prepare for the test.

Mohr, the principal, says the school does not encourage students to study, because they may benefit financially from low scores. "It can be to some students' advantage to have low SAT scores so they can receive financial aid," says Mohr. The Educational Opportunity Program at the SUNY schools provides financial aid to students who are academically and financially disadvantaged. The schools also offer classes in study skills for the students. "We provide academic and economic support services for students not accepted through traditional standards," says Miguel Montes, SUNY's assistant director for recruitment. Montes says by reviewing letters of recommendation and personal statements, the Educational Opportunity Program attempts to predict the students' potential for success.

Rather than take the SAT to get into college, several students each year rely on the connections University Heights High School has with select college admissions counselors. Harding works with these counselors to determine which students are appropriate for which schools. "I have a good relationship with some of the advisers," says Harding. "I show them some of the portfolios so they can have a better picture of the students."

Daishawa Edwardes, who is originally from North Carolina, wants to be either a counselor, a teacher, or a social worker. He says he probably will not take traditional exams, and plans to go to one of the schools where Harding can help get him accepted. "We don't have SATs and Regents exams and all that stuff here," says Edwardes. "I know lots of schools outside the state don't accept students without all that." But Edwardes says he wants to try to attend college outside of New York anyway, if University Heights can help him.

CUNY's admissions director, Parolo, says the CUNY schools admit about one-third of University Heights' graduates each year. "We work hard with the guidance counselors to identify the students who might succeed," says Parolo. Harding and University Heights teachers often invite college admissions counselors to roundtables so they can see the students' work for themselves.

"A lot more colleges are open to alternative assessments," says David Allen, who works with Sizer at the coalition. "As more and more students are accepted into colleges, the less effort it will take to get future students accepted." IBM recently donated 30 computers to University Heights High School so the school can digitalize the portfolios and make it easier to send the portfolios to college admissions offices.

Once the students are in college, they keep up with their colleagues who attended public schools, according to Nancy Wilson, a freshman English teacher at Lehman College. This year, she has two former University Heights students, Omar and Bridget. Wilson says both students are at least as prepared as the students from the other Bronx high schools. "They are also willing to take chances, to try new approaches, and to participate," she explains. The principal tells the story of another young woman, Kimberly, who had low SAT scores but impressive portfolio work. "We had to beg and plead to get her in to Spelman College," says Mohr. "Then she got a 3.2 grade-point average her first year."

University Heights High School conducted a short-term study on the retention rates of its students in college. Out of the University Heights graduates in 1994, 97 percent went to college. One year later, 73 percent were still in college. Neither the school nor the coalition has conducted a longitudinal study, partly because the school is so new, according to Sizer.

University Heights and the other alternative schools in New York may not be the only schools relying on alternative assessment techniques in a few years. Earlier this year, the State Education Department revealed plans to change the state Regents exams from multiple-choice questions to long-term projects similar to portfolios. The exams have tested students on their knowledge of subjects such as math, science, English, and history since 1923. But pilot programs are now experimenting with "performance-based" testing, which focuses on critical thinking rather than memorization.

Allen says that "it's a transitional time" as the Regents exams are changing form. "Schools like University Heights will be an example to other schools who are moving to more authentic assessments," he says. "Some may never organize their whole day like University Heights, but they may have students build portfolios and reflect on them."

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