Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What’s in Your Testing Program?

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been a hectic month for school counselors in Michigan who also wear the title of building testing coordinator. Earlier this month, they were told the state of Michigan would no longer offer the ACT for free as part of its statewide high school testing programs.  Instead, the SAT would be offered for free instead.

Being the sturdy folks we are, counselor sighed, said here we go again, and got ready to reshape their test prep programs and prepare teachers for a different kind of testing—all based on descriptions of a test that isn’t even written yet.

No sooner were those plans developed when Michigan said—hang on.  ACT had filed an appeal of the state’s decision to switch tests.  It turns out ACT had put in a testing bid that included grading the optional writing test that’s long been a part of ACT, but SAT had not.  ACT claimed that was the reason the SAT bid was so much less; without the writing sample, ACT claimed, theirs was the better offer.

The timing on this wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.  Counselors had two weeks to finish sending out high school transcripts for college applications, and a little extra time to get a jump on scheduling—a duty that, like test coordination, is something we have never had any training in.

The word finally came yesterday, and Michigan is back on the Change Express.  Claiming the request for bids clearly told ACT to provide just the basics of the test, the state of Michigan ruled the SAT bid was fair.  As long as the final approval is given next week, the SAT will be part of statewide testing in March 2016.

What can counselors learn from this experience, whether you’re in Michigan or elsewhere?  Plenty:

Never take your test plans for granted.  School improvement in Michigan has been measured in part by ACT scores since 2007, and schools have built entire academic programs around ACT objectives.  The switch to the SAT means there will be no reasonable way to measure student growth for at least three years—and that’s assuming Michigan doesn’t switch back to the ACT when this new three-year contract expires.  School districts went all in on the ACT; now they they’ve been burned, it’s unlikely they’ll be as invested with the SAT.

Never let policy makers take your test plans for granted. Reports indicate the Michigan switch was more about money than anything else, but there are indications decision makers could have been more aware about the curricular implications of making a test change.  Counselors and their state organizations would do well to join efforts with state principal and superintendent groups to share aggregate test results with state leaders on a deep and frequent basis.  By pointing out the impact tests have on third grade reading, counselors can help policy makers think twice about making test changes too often—and give them good reason to understand why those changes may or may not be necessary.

Don’t reinvent the wheel with test prep.  Every school counselor is going to make their test preparation programs more SAT centered—and if everyone has to do something, that means there’s a potential to make it easier.  Now is the time to band together and create a common test prep curriculum; ask your principal to host your nearby school counselors in a meeting or two where you can review existing SAT materials together (the Khan Academy materials come to mind as a place to start).  Tell your principal this will avoid a lot of SAT headaches, and watch how quickly they say yes. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Free Community College? One Major City Offers It Now

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The school counseling community is buzzing about President Obama’s plan to offer two years of free community college to all high school graduates.  First announced two weeks ago, the plan was the key education plank in the State of the Union address, and is seen as a win for all high school students.  Graduates looking to attend a four –year college would have the opportunity to get half of their college credits free at a community college before transferring to a four year institution.  At the same time, high school students wanting to pursue a technical degree would be able to complete most or all of their required training for free.

School counselors see this program as sending the right message to students; no matter what you plan to do, more school is needed after high school to make your way in the world.  That message will be important to convey early and often, since policy analysts suggest the proposal has some high hurdles to overcome:

  • First and foremost, President Obama’s plan calls for new federal funding. It’s estimated the free program will cost $60 billion over 10 years—and with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, funding of any new programs will be under close review.

  • This review will be even more difficult, since the president has proposed a tax increase on the wealthy to generate the funding.  Tax increases are never popular, but given the number of Americans just getting out of the clutches of the Great Recession, it seems unlikely Congress will take this approach to funding the program.
  • This means it is more likely Congress would be willing to redirect funding from the Pell program to this initiative—a move that could hurt the financial aid opportunities for four-year students.

  • Finally, one-fourth of the funding for the program is expected to come from the states.  Since many of the states have been cutting funding to higher education, local funding would likely also have to come from raising taxes—in this case, state taxes.  This would lead to two tax increases for many Americans, doubling their displeasure of elected officials.

As the political realities of a great idea being to sink in, policy makers wonder if there are other approaches to creating free funding that would be less controversial—and the answer is yes.  For the past three years, the Detroit Regional Chamber has offered two years of free community college to any Detroit high school student who graduated from a Detroit school.  After enrolling in the program and applying for existing federal aid by completing the FAFSA, the DRC program pays for any expenses the federal government won’t cover, as long as the student enrolls full-time in one of five community colleges in Metro Detroit.

The advantages of this approach to free community college are clear.  First, students have to complete the FAFSA, something they hesitate to do without some urging.  Since there’s nothing like free college to excite them, students take the time to complete the form, knowing that any shortfall will be picked up by the DRC scholarship program.

Second, since this is a “last dollars” program, the DRC plan builds off of current federal policy, requiring no new money or legislation, while helping more students.

Finally, the program requires students to attend community college full-time, as well as participate in study success seminars—two keys to successful completion of college, which is the ultimate goal.

Everyone hopes President Obama’s plan for free community college works—but if it falls short, there’s a thriving program in Detroit that could become a national model. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Putting New Life in Scheduling Time

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The task school counselors love to hate is back.  No matter how often we point out that we never had a graduate course in Scheduling, principals find a way to make sure our winter months are filled with bubble forms and spreadsheets, as we put our patience and high school Geometry skills to the test, and begin to talk with students about next year’s schedule.

This activity isn’t completely without its benefits, since it gives us time to talk directly with students, but there isn’t a single counselor who gets to late March and says “There has to be a better way to do this.  By then, it’s time to move on to spring testing (another duty that wasn’t part of the graduate school curriculum), so we jot a few notes down, and hope some free time will emerge that allow us to tweak the scheduling process, if only a little—and when that time appears, it’s July.

It’s time to make the time rather than simply hope it appears.  As you prepare to take on scheduling this year’s students for next year’s class, see if any of these tips can make the process more student-centered.

Flipping the scheduling process.  Experienced counselors look at high school scheduling and see two huge time wasters.  The first one involves asking the student what they want to take; this usually occurs in the counselor’s office, before the student has seen any of the scheduling materials, or given any thought about their courses for the next year.

The easiest way to avoid this is to make sure the student comes prepared to discuss the choices they’ve already made.  By making scheduling materials available to students well before the counselor meeting, students will have time to consider their choices, discuss them with their parents, and come up with questions they might have before they appear in your office.  Call it homework, or call it flipping the scheduling process, this approach puts students in the driver’s seat, and requires a degree of proactivity that can make a world of difference.

Submit the schedule ahead of time.  The second step in this process goes even further, and requires the student to submit a rough draft of their schedule before their meeting with the counselor.  This approach asks the student to make some initial decisions, requiring them to evaluate their priorities on their own.  It also gives the counselor an opportunity to review each schedule ahead of time and prepare their questions before meeting with the student. This can be especially helpful if the meeting usually includes a review of progress towards graduation.  Checking the student’s rough draft against the graduation template before the meeting allows the counselor to prepare other recommendations if the student is missing a required course, or create time for a second graduation review during the meeting—and checking twice is never a bad idea.

Using scheduling time for real counseling.  This plan ahead process creates an opportunity for counselors and students to use scheduling time for a greater purpose.  After reviewing the student’s choices, and the rationale being those choices, the conversation can move past the logistics of scheduling, to include deeper discussions about career interests, college plans, summer activities, and more.  This makes the activity of schedule building less about classes, and more about students—and that’s always a good thing.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What the New SAT Means to You

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The start of a new calendar year means more juniors are now turning their attention to the college application process—and to the tests which are often part of that process.  Since College Board has announced changes to the SAT, this means some juniors may not be sure what tests to take, or how to prepare for them.

It would be easy to see this change as one more adjustment for college-bound families to make. But the switch gives students an opportunity to make the most of a new situation—especially since…

The change takes effect in 2016.  If you are a high school junior, absolutely nothing has changed.  All the test prep materials out there will still work, so you are good to go—which means you should pass this column along to your tenth grade friends.

Tenth graders, double down on your studies. No one has seen specific questions that will be on the new SAT, but the goal of the new test is to better measure what students understand from their work in the classroom.  As a result, the more you understand from class, the better prepared you’ll be for the test—just make sure you know the difference between memorizing (“Who was the first president of the United States?”) and understanding (“If the first US president was alive, what three things would bother him the most about government today?”)

Plan on taking the PSAT in the fall.  A new version of the SAT next spring means there will be a new version of the PSAT this fall—and there’s nothing like the PSAT to get you SAT ready.  Some schools will offer the PSAT test for free, but if your school charges a fee, it’s worth saving your pennies now for an experience that will pay off big dividends in eight months.  PSAT test prep materials will be available when you come back to school in the fall.

Give your school counselor support and space.  In the next year, your school counselor will have to interpret the current SAT; plan for the new SAT; help teachers adjust curriculum to meet the demands of the new SAT; revamp the test prep classes and seminars they offer so they’re ready for the new SAT, and make sure they understand how to interpret the subscores of an SAT that isn’t created yet. Much of a counselor’s work on your behalf is done when you aren’t around, and that will include more hours on the SAT this year. They’d much rather spend the time working with you—but for now, they will have to workfor you. The best thing you can do is be patient, and appreciative.

Be ready to take both the ACT and SAT next spring.  Just like two English teachers approach teaching differently, two college tests approach assessment differently—and one approach may make more sense to you than the other. Since that difference can play an important role in where you go to college, plan on taking each test next spring—and if you need help paying for the ACT, ask your counselor if you qualify for a fee waiver.

There are two kinds of excitement in planning for college—the kind that leads to worry, and the kind that leads to action.  The SAT announcement seemed to have come out of nowhere, but it can still take you somewhere.  Just where is largely up to you—and that’s the good kind of excitement.