Opportunity Cost (Or, What We Don't Tell Our Middle Schoolers)

We're in the middle of administering Interim Assessments, a quarterly series of content-specific exams designed to mimic the New York State Tests. Every single year, by the end of these exams, I'm always foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog, stalking around the classroom at a rapid-fire pace, and jamming my finger against test questions on students' papers with a disapproving scowl that reads: "IS THAT YOUR ANSWER? REALLY?" And there's only one reason why: it's because I'm always assigned to proctor the seventh grade assessments.

If you're not familiar with the high school admissions process in New York City, it's rough. Middle school students are given a directory of all the high schools to which they can apply. However, the information presented inside isn't exactly "student-friendly." For instance, the NYC Department of Education lists the Quality Review scores for each high school. The Quality Review is the inspection process that each public school goes through on an annual basis, during which state representatives come in and observe multiple classes before assigning the school's scores. These scores are in areas like "Assessing Student Learning" and "Teacher Collaboration." What eighth grade student cares about "Assessing Student Learning"? (Spoilers: None of them.) They're all looking at one single list -- Extracurricular Activities. I've known students who've flipped through the directory pages, found a high school that offers their favorite sport, and then have ended their search right there. They haven't considered that only 40% of students at their "dream high school" graduate in four years and only 22% enroll in a college or career program post-graduation. (Those are the statistics for Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx. There were many students in my TFA placement school who planned on going to Banana Kelly, until I convinced them otherwise.)

I feel like the NYC DOE forgets that many eighth grade students, especially from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, have a lot of input about where they go to high school. If the family has Internet access, they can find the NYC High School Directory translated online into nine different languages; however, the directories distributed in school are written in English. I started my career teaching at a multicultural magnet school where many of the parents didn't speak English and were living far below the poverty line (i.e. didn't have computers or Internet access). In those families, the students were oftentimes responsible for choosing their own high schools. Therefore, I encourage the NYC DOE to publish a directory geared less towards parents/educators and more towards the students themselves. Don't tell me what the Quality Review score for "Teacher Collaboration" was; tell me what the high school's alumni are doing. What's their annual income compared to the rest of NYC? What percentage of them are employed and in which industries? How many of them actually FINISHED college? I know that we're not tracking this data -- but maybe we should be. I think that these statistics would be much more useful to students deciding where to invest the next four years of their lives than any Quality Review score.

(Every teenager dreams of a "rigorous Regents, Common Core, and College Preparatory curriculum" that values "individual experiences and different learning styles" to "support student growth and achievement." Also please note that there are 677 pages in this educational encyclopedia.)

What does this have to do with the seventh grade quarterly assessments and my test-fueled irascibility? Your seventh grade report card is a major determining factor in where you go to high school. Now, our students are incredibly lucky because all of them are guaranteed a spot at our charter high school. 100% of students at that high school will enroll in a four-year college program. It's unbelievable to think that all of our students, even the ones who are currently struggling academically and behaviorally, will eventually be moving into their dorm rooms. But while our high school will open up outstanding opportunities for most of our students, for some, it's not the best choice that they could make.

There are tons of high schools in New York City. And while some of them are like Banana Kelly, some of them are reserved for the intellectual elite. These are the specialized high schools -- the ones that require an exam, a portfolio, an audition, or an interview. The ones where you need to attend open houses and jump through other pre-specified hoops to gain admission. Where you have to demonstrate that you have parents who care enough to drive you to the Upper West Side at 6 AM on a Saturday. (Or that you have a theater teacher who's willing to sit in Central Park for an entire day while you audition for two studios.) And these are the schools -- schools like Stuyvesant High School, Beacon High School, LaGuardia Arts High School -- that will help you get into top-tier institutions of higher education. Harvard. Yale. Stanford. Princeton. Columbia. Juilliard. Now, I could discuss ad nauseam what's wrong with all of the aforementioned hoop-jumping that these high schools require -- especially for low-income families, recent immigrants, and single parents -- but for right now, I'm going to discuss a different problem:

In seventh grade, none of my students even know that these high schools exist.

I've never been able to figure out why we don't talk about high school options earlier. In eighth grade, I host an information session about performing arts high schools (and coach students for their auditions/interviews), but, by that time, many of the students who are interested have already ruined their chances with lackluster grades the previous year. (Most selective high schools require you to have at least a B in every seventh grade class.) I always tell myself that I'll go into each advisory at the beginning of the year and talk to them about high school selection -- but I get so bogged down so quickly with our school productions that I never remember. Really, I have no one to blame for their lack of knowledge but myself.

(She totally saw me taking this photo outside the classroom window, while I was trying to be all stealthy and discrete, and it was AWKWARD.)

And so a few students don't take their quarterly assessments seriously. They refuse to add two quotes to their short response questions. They neglect to write down the central idea next to each paragraph. They don't mark the close confusers and get multiple choice questions incorrect. And this drives me to the breaking point of exasperation because I know that these grades are some of the most important of their entire lives. These are the grades that will determine where they go to high school. And therefore, these grades will heavily influence where they go to college. For some of them, their entire futures hinge on these few hours of testing.

But they don't know that.

And that's our fault.

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