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For Some Boston Students, Tracking Academic Progress A Difficult Task

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Many students across the state are in the middle of MCAS tests, the standardized exam Massachusetts students have to pass to graduate from public schools.

In the age of increased school accountability, anyone can go online and find MCAS scores for any school in the state. In fact, you can find all manner of information about schools — from the average absences to the graduation rate. But if you're a kid inside one of these schools, information on your own progress can be much harder to get. There's a movement within Boston Public Schools to change that.

In past years, Brook Farm Academy in West Roxbury would talk to kids about their GPAs during junior year. But that can be too late to turn mediocre grades into something college-worthy.

Until recently, Hernan Melo didn't know how much his high school grades could affect the rest of his life. He's a sophomore, and he didn't know that the B's and C's he got in his first two years would count just as much as his future grades.

All of those will be averaged into one number: his grade point average. Right now, for some people and institutions, Melo boils down to a 2.9.

You might think this is something taught in school. But he learned about the all-important number when he looked at college websites.

"'Cause I want to get into a good college," he said. "And they said you have to have a certain GPA, so then I wanted to know what it was."

Melo wants to get higher than a 3.0.

The Importance Of The Grade Point Average

In past years, his high school, Brook Farm Academy in West Roxbury, would talk to kids about their GPAs during junior year. But that can be too late to turn mediocre grades into something college-worthy. So last year the school started posting the information in the hallway. Grade point averages for students of all years are posted next to student identification numbers, to keep things anonymous.

Now this high school is going further.

Guidance counselors Ruthie Aframe and Richard Webber gathered Melo and six other sophomores into a small room. After talking about all the requirements for graduation, they passed out colorful charts to each student.

CLICK TO ENLARGE: A graph from a new tool Boston Public Schools has developed to tell students whether they're on track to graduate
CLICK TO ENLARGE: A graph from a new tool Boston Public Schools has developed to tell students whether they're on track to graduate

"So now you have in front of you the actual graduation tracker," Aframe said to the group.

These are personalized reports that synthesize all of the students progress into one bar graph. MCAS, credits and attendance are all factored into the report.

Aframe wants to go over it as a group, but Webber urges her to let the students take in the information. It's all new to them.

Melo shakes his head and sums up his reaction in one word: "Disappointed."

His grades have gone down since the last time he checked his GPA. This is the first time he said he's heard about anything about required credits.

The same goes for Garlen Diaz.

"The only thing I knew was my grade and my GPA," she said. "Now I'm aware of the stuff I need to focus on."

From now on, these kids will get these reports every marking period. The district is testing out the tracker here and at Madison Park High School before rolling it out at three large high schools this fall. Boston received help developing the tracker from Boston Plan For Excellence, a local nonprofit focused on improving the Boston Public Schools.

The Information Vacuum

This probably all seems like common sense — tell kids how they're doing so they can do better. But in Boston and in some other large urban school districts across the country, that isn't happening — at least not in every school.

"It's just been an information vacuum for students," said Stephanie Sibley, headmaster at Brook Farm Academy. For a long time, she said, schools in the district resisted telling some kids what she calls "the truth."

"And the truth is, well, as a junior, you failed two freshman courses that you never made up. So actually you're in your third year of high school, but you're not really a junior yet, because you have these courses to make up," Sibley said.

Sibley said those "hard conversations weren't happening in a way that motivated kids to do something about it."

This is Sibley's first year at Brook Farm Academy. She hopes posting GPAs and distributing graduation trackers will create a college-preparatory culture at her school.

District leaders hope that culture spreads across all schools.

"If we expect our kids to be successful, they have to understand the important language of grade point average and how it impacts your future," said Irvin Scott, Boston's Chief Academic Officer.

"That wasn't always the case consistently in the district," he said. "One of the best ways to change that is by making sure kids are pushing for it. Put in their hands tools that will allow them to advocate for themselves."

The Movement For Increased Information Access

Kids actually started this movement for more access to information. About seven years ago, students from Brighton High School took a field trip to an elite exam school and noticed that all of the students there knew their GPAs by heart, when Brighton kids had little knowledge of their own numbers. So they went back to their school and campaigned to have GPAs posted in the hallway.

Toby Romer was principal at the time. He said that strategy worked. It helped put students on a path to college. But he's not surprised it's taken this long to spread more widely. He fears schools in Boston don't have enough guidance counselors to talk to kids once they get more information about their academic progress — or lack of it.

"I don't think it's been emphasized for really the last 15 years," Romer said, referring to guidance services. "A lot of other important academic priorities have been emphasized, so it's hard to second guess." Still, he said there "really is very little human resources left that purely focus on counseling students, social emotional support and college planning."

District officials agree. There aren't enough guidance counselors in the system, and they can't hire anymore any time soon. But they hope students can get help from other adults — parents, teachers, after-school staff — as they track their progress towards graduation and college.

This program aired on March 31, 2011.


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