Key Part of School Reform Put to the Test Today in Hartford


By Karen Cortés
Hartford School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto
As of Tuesday, 589 of 675 eligible seniors enrolled at eight of Hartford’s public high schools and specialty academies were registered to take the SAT exam today, while students in Simsbury, Bloomfield and Region 19 do the same. That number registered in Hartford may increase by test time, however, as the contract between Hartford Public Schools and the College Board, which administers the SAT, allows students to register on the day of the exam.
With a $100,000 price tag attached, the controversial school-day testing was first rejected by the Hartford Board of Education, for this year, with the board citing lack of communication surrounding the testing process, only to approve the expenditure just weeks before the scheduled test date. Students will take the test free of charge, and the college board will  provide individualized data on what each student needs to work on to increase their scores on a subsequent test. Nearly all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. use SAT scores, considered to be a reliable measure of college readiness and a valid indicator of likely college success for students from all backgrounds, as part of the admission process.
Hartford School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto is leading an ambitious school reform program in the city that includes a goal of ensuring that all students earning a Hartford Public School diploma demonstrate college readiness. Her district educates students who face overwhelming socioeconomic challenges. Nearly half of its 20,000 students live in poverty, 89.9% receive free or reduced lunch, and the city’s illiteracy rate is one of the highest in the nation.
As reported by the Hartford Courant, Kishimoto is under pressure to show student results. In a recent evaluation, the Hartford Board of Education gave Kishimoto “a 3.0 rating out of 5 on educational leadership, commending her knowledge of education reform but listing numerous negatives, such as a high number of principal departures and concern that limited course offerings and narrow school themes may diminish the overall quality of education.”
Kishimoto responded in a statement, according to the Courant, that the review “did not focus on students and their achievement, nor on my leadership skills, but on specific situations and adult issues.” She added that incremental gains have been made toward her goals of closing the achievement gap and preparing city students for colleges and careers.
For Kishimoto, the effort to provide as many students as possible with access to the SAT exams is both professional and personal.  Besides being the top school administrator, she is a Hartford resident and the mother to a 12-year-old seventh grader attending public school in the city. She joined the Hartford school system in 2005 as assistant superintendent of school design, leading reform efforts and creating an accountability matrix for the district, and was appointed superintendent in 2011.
Q. Why is this free SAT opportunity so important for Hartford students?
A. The SAT is the gateway exam to competitive colleges. We have great examples of kids going to Harvard, Brown, historically Black colleges, and small competitive liberal arts schools, but the majority of our students attend two-year colleges or the state university system. We have relationships that give them access, but not because they’ve done well.
When everyone takes the exam, we bring a high level of awareness to the college career process. It’s a way of starting a high level conversation in the community. The PSAT and SAT are part of that conversation.
Kids were waiting until 12th grade to take the SAT, without the benefit of raising scores. There was no alignment between the exam and work being done in high school. And there are other impediments. Kids had to travel to West Hartford. Many kids work or care for siblings on Saturdays. Kids were missing the exam even after registering.
By administering the SAT during the school day, the teachers are vested; families have the information; and kids get feedback. Taking the SAT during the school day is wonderful in any district, but when your students face poverty and illiteracy, it means something completely different. There’s nothing more powerful than student voices. They stepped up as leaders to advocate for their futures.
Q. Can you compare this year’s graduating class, which has come up through the ranks largely pre-reform, with your younger students?
A. In 2006-2007, just 33% of the cohort graduated with their class. Last year, that number was 63%. That’s a huge jump. The severity of the need was so underestimated. Data wasn’t being looked at in an honest way. The old measure looked at students in their current grade.
The question is, how many students do we graduate in four years? We were losing a third of our of students between 9th and 10th grades, and another third between 10th and 11th.  Now our retention rate between 9th and 10th grades is better than ever.
Our current sixth graders are the students carrying the promise of reforms. They are 20% above what their peers were at that level. Our third grade class has had a 22% gain in reading, and 20% in mathematics. This year’s ninth grade had higher test scores last year than any eighth grade class in history. The numbers show the results of the reform.
Q. You’re a parent and an administrator. Do other administrators have children enrolled in Hartford Public Schools?
A. Yes! When I hire for executive level positions, I ask for full buy in, including living in Hartford, and registering children for school in Hartford. We also have a teacher incentive to live in Hartford. I get to hear everything first hand from my neighbors and other employees with children! It’s a healthy pressure to have!