School & District Management

College Board Launches Model for Improving High Schools

By Lynn Olson — September 06, 2006 3 min read
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The College Board will partner with three large urban districts to launch a new model for improving high schools through a $16 million commitment announced last week by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Further information on the high school initiative is available from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Under the plan, the New York City-based nonprofit organization—best known for the SAT college-admission test—will work with 11 high schools in Chicago, the District of Columbia, and Duval County, Fla., to raise graduation and college-readiness rates by implementing its new “EXCELerator” model for school improvement.

By the 2007-08 school year, the board expects to bring its high school model to an additional 19 schools, serving as many as 45,000 students. With support from the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, the board currently operates 11 small schools in New York City and elsewhere in New York state.

Focus on Rigor

The EXCELerator model is designed to upgrade achievement in existing schools, in part through the introduction of a rigorous academic program, based on the College Board’s SpringBoard and Advanced Placement curricula.

It also emphasizes greater personalized support for students; ongoing professional development for superintendents, principals, teachers, and counselors; extensive use of data; and stronger school-based college and career planning.

“Obviously, the College Board has a great track record in providing professional development and curriculum in high schools,” said Marie Groark, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation, “and they have demonstrated in New York thus far a very strong record in starting new schools. So, if you combine the two, it seemed like the College Board had the opportunity to bring all those things together … to really make a difference in some of the high schools struggling around the country.”

Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, who has doubled its revenue to about $500 million since taking the job in 1999, said he hopes to implement the EXCELerator program in up to 150 schools nationwide over the next five years.

“We anticipate reaching thousands of students in urban districts,” he said. But he added: “We’ll only grow as fast as we’re successful.”

Ms. Groark said that while getting the model right is critical, the new grant also reflects other lessons that the foundation has learned over the last five years as part of its more than $1 billion investment in high school improvement around the country.

“The College Board is working very closely with districts, not just directly with schools,” she said. “We know that districts and district leadership play an important role in high school improvement initiatives.”

Like many other big-city districts, Chicago, the District of Columbia, and Duval County are struggling with low high school performance and graduation rates, particularly for poor and minority students.

They were selected as the launch sites for the EXCELerator program because of their commitment to turning those numbers around, Ms. Groark said.

Reaching New Markets

Since Mr. Caperton’s arrival, the College Board has reached ever deeper into the K-12 market, through such products as SpringBoard, an English and mathematics curriculum for grades 6-12; the expansion of the PSAT, designed to prepare students for the SAT; and, most notably, the tremendous surge in AP participation nationwide.

Studies have found, however, that high schools with high percentages of poor and minority students, such as those involved in the initiative, typically offer fewer AP courses.

“The College Board is trying to build vertically aligned programs and services to get people ready to take more AP courses in high school,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of the Washington-based Achieve Inc., which advocates better career and college preparation for high school students.

To the extent that many people view AP courses as rigorous, he added, the College Board’s efforts “align with the broader agenda that many of us are working on.”

Skepticism Voiced

Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director for the Cambridge, Mass.-based FairTest, a longtime critic of the SAT, said: “What the College Board brings in will be better than the curriculum in some places. But is that worth $16 million? We’ll have to see the data.”

Mr. Caperton said the College Board’s latest venture would not only help the participating schools, “but also give us a chance to understand what we’re doing to help the other schools that we serve.”

To the extent a business grows and expands and is able to serve more people, he added, “I think most people recognize that as a good thing.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as College Board Launches Model for Improving High Schools

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