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Ask any almost anyone and they will tell you that completing college applications can be complicated and emotional for a variety of reasons.   Students often report that the most anxiety inducing portion of the process involves the ACT and SAT exams. Both are nationally administered, standardized tests that help colleges evaluate students for admission.  Both tests have been rites of passage for decades, but the landscape has changed and students can make a choice about which test to take.

Until recently, the college entrance test you took was based on your zip code.  Students on the east and west coasts typically took the SAT and students in the middle of the country usually took the ACT.  For most, there wasn’t much thought that went into the decision, you simply took the test you were told to take by the colleges in your geographic area.  Times have changed dramatically and almost every college now accepts either test.  In fact, colleges do not express a preference for one test over the other.

As illustrated in the chart below, more and more TUHSD students take the ACT every year and they are experiencing a great deal of success.

Grad Year English Score Math Score Reading Science Composite Total Tested
2010 26.3 26.2 26.1 24.6 25.9 375
2014 26.8 26.2 26.8 25.3 26.4 458


It’s also interesting to note that the California state average composite score was 22.2 in 2010 and 22.3 in 2014.  Clearly, TUHSD students are performing far above state average and of even more significance; our students’ performance is improving at a rate that far exceeds the state.

What is the difference between the two tests?

There are many factors that distinguish the two tests from each other, but briefly, the ACT is an achievement test that measures the content taught in school.  Success on the ACT is dependent on mastery of curriculum and therefore is closely tied to a student’s experience in their school.  The SAT is more of an aptitude test and it measures reasoning and verbal abilities.

The ACT has five sections:  English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing Test.  The SAT has three sections:  Critical Reading, Mathematics and a required Writing Test.

How are the questions different on the ACT and SAT?

According the Princeton Review website, the ACT questions tend to be more straightforward and easier to understand on a first read.  The SAT may require more time to think about a question prior to the formulation of a response.  Furthermore, SAT penalizes for wrong answers, so guessing is discouraged.  The ACT is scored based on the number correct answers with with no penalty for guessing.

Is there is difference in the length of the tests? 

The ACT is 3 hours and 25 minutes including the optional Writing Test.  The SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes.

How do students choose the best test?

The place to get great advice is from the TUHSD guidance counselors!  This blog post barely scratches the surface of the complexities of both tests.  Our counselors know our students on an individual basis as well as the ins and outs of both tests.  They can help a student assess their strengths and weaknesses and make informed decisions about the entire college application process.  Another great place to get advice is from the College and Career Counselors.  They have access to a variety of resources such practice tests, information about specific colleges and universities, as well as processes sign up to take tests.

More web resources:

The ACT:

The SAT:

Information on the 2016 SAT revisions:

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In an economy driven by technology, innovation and service, future success for our students will require both content knowledge as well as a set of underlying skills such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration.  Both common sense and research tell us that our students must be prepared for learning beyond high school whether it is in college, job training and apprenticeship programs.  But how do we ensure that all students who enter high schools are ready for their future when they are only there fo four short years?  The answer lies in both effective classroom instruction as well as effective intervention.

We know that all students can learn; however, some students need more time and more support.  In the past, many school systems waited for students to fail or fall far behind to intervene.  Summer school was offered when students failed or gave up and the student then was required to repeat the entire course regardless of content that had been previously mastered.   Special education was sometimes offered as a last resort when staff had tried everything they could think of to help and simply didn’t know what else to do.  These sorts of extreme measures are important for many students and absolutely necessary at times, but for many others success is possible if we intervene quickly and efficiently.

Imagine a school system where student outcomes are clearly identified, where there is high quality instruction in every classroom and where TIMELY intervention is available for EVERY student at the first sign of a struggle.  What if students didn’t have to wait for help until they had already failed?  What if students didn’t need to repeat an entire course, but rather just the portions that they had yet to master?  Wouldn’t this be a more efficient and effective system for students, parents and teachers?

The best intervention is prevention and so our most important work actually begins with a strong core instructional program in every classroom for every student.  Approximately 80% of students who receive a well taught, research-based curriculum should experience success as a result of instruction in the classroom.  Quite simply, this is the reason that districts should take the time to have teachers collaboratively create a common core aligned curriculum along with assessments methods to measure student growth and achievement.  Schools should also focus on increasing the quality of classroom instruction and ensuring that research based and proven methodologies are utilized.

The next step to ensure that all students learn at high levels is to create intervention plans to assist students who need more time or support to reach proficiency on skills and content.  Well-constructed intervention plans have the following characteristics:

  • Tiered support – some students need a little help and some need a lot of help.  Interventions should offer various levels of assistance based on the needs of the student.
  • Directive – interventions must be mandatory.  We can’t claim that our mission is to ensure that all students learn at high levels and then allow our students to “choose” to fail.
  • Administered by trained professionals – systems must be in place so that the professionals with the most expertise in a given area are able to deliver intervention.  This notion is based on a medical model.  If you have the flu, you can see the physician’s assistant, but if you have cancer, you need the oncologist.
  • Targeted – intervention is very specific to the student and the standard in which he or she needs assistance.  Using a reliable system of assessment in the classroom ensures that we identify specific areas of intervention.
  • Timely – effective intervention occurs promptly, not after an F grade has been given for the course.  Also, interventions should only be as long as needed; a student should not have to languish in intervention past the point where it is helpful.

If you would like additional information on effective intervention:

An easy to read article – “The Why Behind RtI” by AusitnBuffum, Mike Mattos and Chris Weber-click HERE

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Post high school planning, also commonly known as the college search – it’s a topic that can strike fear in the hearts of even some of the most seasoned parents.  We can spend countless hours wondering how to ensure that our students are prepared and trying to point them in the “right” direction.   As we all know, living in Marin also adds an element of pressure. It seems like everyone is talking about where their children are going, but have you ever wondered where the majority of our students actually end up?  Do you wonder how many of our students attend the UCs, CSUs and College of Marin?  How many students chose to go directly to a career?  There are so many post high school choices with something to fit everyone’s needs and yet, the conversation doesn’t always include the variety of options that are available.

As TUHSD, we are quite interested in our data regarding post high school preparation and college enrollment.   So that we could better understand the facts, wehave acquired previously unreleased data from the national college clearinghouse that allowed us to go beyondantidotal stories and the student self-reported data that we have relied on in the past.  Data from the clearinghouse reports the percentage of students who complete a degree in six years and so the most recent data available is for the class of 2007.  Here is the data in relation to some commonly asked questions:

How many TUHSD students enroll in college and how many of them earn a degree?

  • 80% of our graduates enrolled in college in 2007. Of those who entered college, 70% earned a degree in six years or less.
  • TUHSD students weremuch more likely than others to graduate within six years. The national average of students who enrolled in college and earned a degree in six years or less is 54.2%

How many TUHSD students either do not enroll or do not finish their degree?

  • For the class of 2007, 391 students (out of 955) or 41.2% did not receive a degree within six years.

Where do TUHSD students enroll in college?

The top five colleges of enrollment for the classes of 2007-2013 are as follows:

  • College of Marin – 832 students
  • University of California-Santa Cruz -239 students
  • University of Oregon – 171 students
  • University of California- Santa Barbara – 163 students
  • California Polytechnic State University – 162 students

Both parents and school staff are also quite interested in how well we prepare our students for post high school education.  Research is clear, one of the best predictors of success in college and career is access to a rigorous curriculum in high school.  Therefore, as a district, we regularly monitor many data points including but not limited to enrollment and success in Advanced Placement courses and numbers of students who take college entrance tests such as the SAT.  Here is what we know about recent trends regarding college readiness:

  • Over the past five years we have had significant increases in the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes, taking the exam, and scoring a “passing” grade or higher. About 30% more students now take a course and the exams and at the same time, our passing rates have increased by about 30%.
  • Over the past five years we have had a 100% increase in the numbers of low income students who take Advanced Placement courses and their pass rates have increased by 147%.
  • Over the past five years, the numbers of students taking the SAT has increased by about 4 %. Even more significantly,  the number of students of color who take the SAT has increased by 61%, and the number of low-income students taking the test has increased by 102%.
  • SAT scores for TUHSD students have increased .5% and 3.5% for low-income students.

As you can see, the data above tells us a story about our schools.  Our students are well prepared for college and career, but we can and will continue to improve what we teach and how we teach it.  If we are truly preparing the leaders of the future, we need to ensure success for all students, not just most students.  The data also tells us that we are improving preparation levels for ALL students, not just one or two small subgroups.

The clearinghouse data shows that by far, the most popular college choice for our students is College of Marin.  In fact, more students attend COM than the next four most popular choices combined.  It’s important to remember that COM is a great option and that the staff there has worked to improve their services to our students over the past several years.  In the end, there is no “one size fits all” for post high school and our best bet is to prepare our students so that they have a variety of options from which to choose.

Coming in the next blog – advice from seasoned parents about post high school transition and college search process.

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There has been a great deal of media coverage recently about state national education issues and much of it is confusing and contradictory.  Many of these news reports use jargon and terms that can be unclear such as “Common Core Standards”, “No Child Left Behind”, and “Smarter Balanced Assessments”.   As parents, we hear bits and pieces of these reports but not many of us have the time to wade through it all to put together the pieces of the story.

The Roots of our state assessment system go all the way back to 1965

On April 9, 1965, the Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.  This landmark legislation allocated large amounts of financial resources to meet the needs of students from low-income homes.  For the first time, the federal government acknowledged that some students need more services to reach the goals that are set for all students.  The federal money allocated to schools for low-income students is referred to as Title I funds.   ESEA is a law with a limited lifespan and therefore, has been reauthorized by congress several times since 1965.  For more information about ESEA, click here.

No Child Left Behind was a new name for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

In 2002, President George W. Bush reauthorized ESEA and renamed it the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  For the first time, the federal government created a large role for itself in pubic education with the mandate that all states must have student assessment systems that expose achievement gaps between groups of students.  NCLB also came with a series of sanctions for schools that didn’t meet targets, which increased dramatically each year.  In California, the STAR tests were created in order to meet the federal requirements of NCLB.  Despite widespread dissatisfaction with NCLB, these tests were given in California up until Spring 2013.  At Tam District, our test scores have had an upward trend for the past decade.

Common Core Standards change the national dialogue

Part of the backlash against NCLB was because all fifty states had the flexibility to adopt different standards for what students need to know and be able to do as well as different systems to assess student achievement.  The Common Core Standards initiative was borne out of the frustration of the inconsistent standards and testing systems.    They are an attempt to nationally standardize knowledge and skills taught to all students.  Although the Common Core Standards have been the topic of some controversy, they were written by educators and focus on using information and skills to solve real world problems.  Under Common Core, the same skills that have always been taught will continue to be taught and there is now an increased emphasis on the application of knowledge.

The new state testing system will assess students on the Common Core Standards

Last  spring all school districts in California  assessed students using a new system known as “Smarter Balanced” tests.  This new set of tests are aligned to the Math and English Language Arts Common Core Standards and will include both multiple choice questions as well as performance tasks that require students to apply knowledge and solve problems.  At the high school level, only 11th graders will be tested.  For more information about these assessments click here

Data will be more useful than ever

The smarter balanced assessment system is a mandatory requirement from the state for all schools in California.   The information gathered will be available to schools, teachers and parents relatively quickly and it promises to be more useful than data received in the past.  Additionally, the inclusion of performance tasks will allow a level of understanding of a student’s ability to apply knowledge.  For sample performance tasks click here.

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If we stand still in a rapidly changing world, we will be quickly passed by.  As educators, we must be aware that our role is to prepare our students to enter an increasingly competitive job market and college application process.  If we accept the status quo when other schools and districts are making improvements, our students will be denied the highest quality education possible.

Continuous improvement is imperative and must be driven by a robust statement of mission and corresponding strategic plan.  A strategic plan charts a course for a specific future by setting goals designed to move the organization towards its aspirational mission.

In comparing district leadership and student achievement, Waters and Marzano (2006) identified five specific district leadership responsibilities that positively correlated with student achievement:

  • Establishing a collaborative process to set goals;
  • Establishing “non-negotiable goals” (that is, goals all staff must act upon once set by the board) in at least two areas: student achievement and classroom instruction;
  • Having the board align with and support district goals;
  • Monitoring goals for achievement and instruction;
  • Using resources to support achievement and instruction goals.

Ultimately, the responsibility of strategic planning belongs to the School Board.  According to the National School Board Association, One of the primary responsibilities of a school board is to set direction for a district. Boards should work with their communities to set a direction for the district through the creation of a mission statement and then development of specific goals intended to move the organization closer to realization of that mission.

The first step in the strategic planning process is usually to create a student focused mission statement.  This statement should reflect the values of the community and be focused on the outcomes expected for students rather than the actions or behaviors of adults such as teachers, administrators or parents.  The mission tells us what a graduate of our schools should know and be able to do.  Mission statements are aspirational rather than a statement of what exists today.

Because public schools should be a reflection of the communities in which they exist, there should be a process of input from parents, students, staff and community members.  Forums and surveys are typical data gathering processes.  Before a mission is set, there must also be a thorough examination of data for all aspects of district functioning including student achievement, discipline, climate, district financial records and human resources records.  It is the responsibility of the school board to create and approve the mission, but this should only be done after careful consideration of input and data.

After a mission has been created and approved, the Board of Education typically establishespriorities, which are the major areas that must be addressed in order to make progress toward the mission.  All areas of school district operations should be at least considered when creating a comprehensive plan.  Of course no plan is complete without priorities in the areas of curriculum and instruction but other areas of consideration may be finance, human resources, student services (counseling, discipline, wellness), community engagement, public relations/communications.

Once priority areas are determined, strategic goals should be set in each area.  Again, each step of the process should involve opportunities for input and collaboration with staff, parents, students and community.  Each strategic goal should clearly lead the organization towards achievement of the mission.  School boards should closely monitor progress towards goals and amend the plan over time so that it stays relevant.  Once a strategic plan is in place it must be updated regularly.  Goals that are accomplished should be celebrated and new goals that lead to the mission should be added.

Overall, a strategic plan provides direction for staff.  The role of administrators is to implement the strategic plan rather than to strike out on their own about what they independently believe to be the best course of action.  In the simplest terms, the School Board determines the “what” and the staff uses their expertise to determine the “how”.   Neither the staff or board can work in isolation, they are a team and they need each other in order to truly engage in continuous improvement on behalf of students.

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