A Chicago Public Schools Administrator’s Journey from SAT to Council of the Great City Schools

I had the privilege of attending this year’s Council of the Great City Schools conference in Baltimore. I was part of a team that presented on the Chicago Public Schools’ use of Official SAT Practice (OSP) on Khan Academy®.

I had the privilege of attending this year’s Council of the Great City Schools conference in Baltimore. I was part of a team that presented on the Chicago Public Schools’ use of Official SAT Practice (OSP) on Khan Academy®.

Conferences are kind of my thing. When I prioritize how I spend my non-school time (and as a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) assistant principal in a large neighborhood high school, I have very little non-school time), attending conferences – and recently, presenting at them – is high on the list. While I work in a large urban district that is diverse, dynamic, and forward-thinking, it can sometimes feel like a bubble. Attending conferences allows me to step outside what I know and learn from others, and that benefits the staff and students at Lake View High School, and my district as a whole.

The CGCS conference was a new experience for me, as its intended audience was district-level leadership and the focus of the sessions was primarily on the high-level decisions and best practices that are required to run districts that serve tens of thousands of kids. As a high school administrator, I’m not often privy to those conversations, nor do I have much access to district leadership. So, while I was there to present, I approached my time in Baltimore as a learner.

I attended sessions on district budgeting that helped me understand how CPS affords principals autonomy through student-based budgeting and how that ownership can be a double-edged sword. I learned how districts are working to leverage university and corporate partnerships to fill in funding and experiential learning gaps, and how some districts are creating offices to support schools with grant-writing (CPS: can we get this?). I also joined discussions about what’s happening in Washington and how it will likely impact my students (that was an off-the-record session, so my lips are sealed). And, more informally, I chatted with folks and learned about programs and resources and supports and vendors and websites, and a myriad of other “stuff” that I wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. Oh, and Jill Biden is my new hero.

I’d like to share a bit of my personal journey, and that of the Chicago Public Schools, and why College Board asked us to present our work on SAT and Official SAT Practice. First, some history. For a long time, my home state of Illinois used the ACT as the state-mandated accountability assessment. As a result, high schools aligned accordingly to the College and Career Readiness Standards and implemented ACT test preparation strategies that were developed (and institutionalized) over many years. For SY16-17, Illinois switched from ACT and EPAS to the SAT Suite of Assessments. This was no easy transition for a large urban district and, that first year, we were all trying to figure things out as we learned how the SAT differed from the ACT (in ways that better meet the needs of students, in all honesty), how our standards and instruction supported success on the SAT, what practices we could keep and what we needed to change, and, most importantly, how to support our students to ensure we gave them every opportunity to succeed on the SAT.

We had a lot of help in the first year. The College Board sent its best and brightest—the dynamic duo of Jennifer McDonnell [Senior Director, K-12] and Maureen LaRavier [Senior Director, K-12]—who led large-scale professional development, conducted working groups of small clusters of teachers and administrators, and conducted on-site visits to many of the 100+ high schools that are part of CPS. High school administrators and teacher-leaders attended day-long summits to understand the SAT. We were also introduced to OSP and encouraged to support our students in linking their College Board accounts with Khan so they could benefit from free personalized SAT practice. 

That first year of implementation also marked my first year as a high school administrator, and I was an eager early adopter of all-things SAT. I was excited to learn everything I could. I attended the College Board Forum in Chicago that fall and heard David Coleman speak about how he was leading with a focus on equity and social justice, and how the College Board had a vision for expanded access and opportunity for all students –especially students of color and those from historically disadvantaged populations. I decided to take the SAT that fall to better understand what my students would be facing (this ended up leading a bet I made with my students – my shaved head at the end of the year was evidence of being on the losing end of that bet), and I was excited (and relieved) that the test felt like a true measure of what we were doing day-to-day in school.

After the first year, it became clear that CPS would benefit from organizing a district-level professional learning community (PLC) to share ideas and best practices around SAT and OSP. I approached the district Assessment Director, Peter Leonard, and pitched my idea at the CPS Leadership Institute in the summer of 2017. Peter also recognized the possibilities and partnered me with his newly-hired High School Assessment Manager, Mike Nick, to form the PLC, create a vision, conduct outreach to get the perfect mix of teachers and administrators from across our district, and to set goals for what we would accomplish that year. Mike and I facilitated the PLC over the past year and the result of our work is the Khan Academy/SAT Playbook. This collection of resources offers schools a roadmap for rolling out OSP to staff and students, linking accounts, how to monitor and incentivize participation so that students practice for the recommended 20 hours to get the greatest growth, how to set schedules to create opportunities for students to practice, how to leverage resources, and best practices for overall implementation. My vision is that the PLC will now tackle the SAT Skills Insight to better support schools with targeted instruction based on score band and that our website will expand to include more instructional resources beyond what it has today.

The learning gleaned from the work of the PLC is what we presented at CGCS. We shared our district’s three-tiered approach to OSP: district monitoring of schools for percentage of students linked and number of students practicing six, ten, and 20 hours; school-level administrator ownership of 11th grade practice time, whole-grade incentives, and best practices for monitoring and sharing progress; and classroom level use of the Khan platform that goes far beyond what Khan and College Board likely ever envisioned. Our third presenter, Mark Janka, shared his work around repurposing OSP as a dynamic differentiation tool, the data from which can be leveraged by teachers to monitor individual student progress on SAT skills, strategically group students and differentiate instruction, and plan within the scope and sequence of a course, rather than as one-off test prep.

It was thrilling to present this work to other large districts (it was also exciting to have our own CEO, Janice Jackson, in the room to learn more about our efforts). It was an honor to receive recognition from the College Board for that work and to have our work highlighted on the national stage. It was a privilege to be asked by College Board to attend the conference. I am excited to continue our partnership with College Board and to share the amazing work happening across the district in Chicago.