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Even ‘good’ students are ill-prepared

This is a tale of two students.

One, who starts his senior year today at Buffalo’s Emerson School of Hospitality – one of the district’s better schools – got all 80s and 90s last year and wound up averaging 90.69, while doing well on state English exams.

The other scored near the bottom nationally on the SAT, ranking in the 21st percentile in reading, the 10th percentile in math and the 31st percentile in writing, and fared just slightly better in statewide comparisons. On the essay – where scores range from 2 to 12 – he got a 7. On the multiple-choice writing questions – where scores range from 20 to 80 – he managed only a 42.

Clearly, this student is going to find it hard to compete. And, yes, we’re talking about the same student.

A lot of attention has been focused on the Buffalo Public Schools’ poor graduation rate and the life chances of students who don’t graduate.

But how well is the district preparing those students who do graduate? How seriously should parents take high grades that make the school and district look good, but also could be setting kids up for a rude awakening by making them think they’re learning more than they actually are?

“I thought I was going to be prepared, especially for the writing, because I was doing good in English,” the 16-year-old said.

Instead, he spends three to four hours a week after school in a study group at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, where he and two buddies are dissecting former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues.” That’s in addition to the tutoring he gets there in vocabulary and math, plus his regular homework.

Granted, the SAT has come under withering criticism for cultural bias and other shortcomings, and some colleges are de-emphasizing it. Retired Cleveland Hill history teacher Paul Lewis, a volunteer tutor at St. Luke’s, says the national exam is undergoing another overhaul for relevance.

But he also points to another factor in the discrepancy between report cards and SAT scores: grade inflation that makes parents feel better and schools look better. It can be a particular problem in high-needs districts like Buffalo, where schools are under so much pressure to show improvement.

When the gap is as large as it is in this case, my money is on the latter explanation. The student is not being identified here because the goal is not to embarrass him, but to note that, for all of the emphasis on the poor graduation rate, the problem may be even worse than we thought because even “good” students are not being adequately prepared.

New Superintendent Kriner Cash hinted at that last week when he shocked a School Board audience with data showing that only 1 of every 100 ninth-graders in the district go on to earn a college degree. Even if you quibble with the figures he got from a national clearinghouse – and it’s hard to quibble if the district doesn’t keep its own data – the overall picture is one of a system failing even the students it graduates.

Attorney Mike Taheri, who oversees the program at St. Luke’s, wants his mentee to break 500 on each part when he retakes the SAT this fall. Lewis says that the student picks things up quickly and that his improvement during a summer of tutoring has been apparent.

Their only regret? That he wasn’t exposed to this material in school.