Shaheed and his peers attend an inner city high school in Newark, New Jersey. They are the students many doubt will overcome their economic circumstances. They’re the ones implicitly alluded to in statements like those of Dr. Sean F. Reardon – a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and one of the nation’s leading experts on education segregation – when he says, “we don’t have much evidence of places that have been systematically successful when they serve very large populations of low-income students.”
Yet, that Saturday morning after just three hours of sleep and only six weeks of preparation, Shaheed earned that coveted 30, placing him in the top 5% of test takers. The school’s resulting celebration didn’t just acknowledge Shaheed, however. His fellow classmates showed an unprecedented average improvement of 33 percentile points over the prior year’s scores. Shaheed and his classmates provided evidence that students from low-income backgrounds can be systematically successful.
Ryan Hill, CEO of KIPP: New Jersey, predicted in 2007 that “Newark would be the first major American city to prove all kids could achieve.” Now, NCA has done exactly that, and it’s time for other schools and major cities across the country to rise to the challenge.
The success of Shaheed and his peers attending NCA demonstrates what happens when the same educational resources typically reserved for students attending high-resource schools are made available to students attending an inner-city school. In this case, a partnership between NCA and Winward Academy was formed to provide such resources when a member of the KIPP: New Jersey Board, whose son improved 9 points on the ACT using Winward Academy, approached its founder, Dr. Jennifer Winward, about providing her platform to NCA. Dr. Winward welcomed the opportunity to support students at NCA given Winward Academy’s core mission to provide quality teaching to all students and philanthropic commitment to support underrepresented youth.
Per the ACT Condition of College and Career Readiness annual report, students attending NCA are considered “underserved,” which the report defines as meeting at least one of three criteria outlined as “minority, low-income, and/or [a] first-generation college student.” A national report by ACT found that “of those who match all three criteria, only 9 percent show a ‘strong-readiness’ for college-level work.” KIPP NCA students, who meet all three criteria, started above the national average of 9%, with 16% of students meeting the ACT benchmark for college readiness, yet NCA school leaders – believing wholeheartedly in the potential of their students – were steadfast in their commitment to do more. The window for score improvement was limited. The academic year had already begun, and the graduating seniors’ last chance to take the ACT before college applications were due was just six weeks away. Dr. Winward and the NCA team got to work immediately.
School staff converted the football storage closet into a space for students to access the Winward Academy platform each day. Due to the limited time window, Dr. Winward analyzed past ACT exams and handpicked ten high-impact lessons based on the most frequently tested concepts over the past twenty years. One teacher was assigned to lead a daily senior seminar incorporating Winward Academy lessons and practice questions into the curriculum. In class, Shaheed and his peers completed lessons that gradually increased in level of difficulty and allowed them to adjust instructional pace to fit their desired learning speed. They completed practice questions and immediately reviewed step-by-step explanations that not only discussed why the correct answer was right but also broke down all incorrect answer choices. The emphasis on building future knowledge by learning from mistakes shifted students’ mindset to one that embraced mistakes as an opportunity to learn.
The strategy paid off, brilliantly. 53% of KIPP NCA students met at least one of the ACT benchmark criteria for readiness for college level work. Students were 3.5x more likely to be college ready in English, 4.0x more likely in Math, 3.6x more likely in Reading, and 4.0x more likely in Science. One student improved his ACT English score by 10 points, from the 52nd to the 91st percentile, after having moved to the U.S. speaking Igbo only three years earlier. The student reflected that the experience of seeing the time he invested in studying reflected in the score he earned “inspired [his] confidence and [his] commitment to excellence, giving [him] hope about making it out of Newark and being successful.”