Responding to criticism that he's excessively focused on test scores, Palo Alto School District Superintendent Kevin Skelly said Tuesday (Nov. 8) that supporting struggling students as well as top achievers is a central challenge for the school district.
The discussion followed a presentation to the Board of Education on SAT and Advanced Placement data for the Gunn and Palo Alto high school Class of 2011. The presentation noted an increasing number of students -- 75 percent -- enrolling in AP classes and passing at least one AP exam.
"We don't want every kid to take AP classes," Skelly said. "Kids can get a fine education here without that.
"But this (SAT averages and AP participation) is data we want people to know about. We're not emphasizing it. We just think people are curious about this stuff and it gives families and students information about what their world looks like."
Tuesday's annual presentation of high school test data portrayed a district with SAT averages so high that a student in Palo Alto's 25th percentile ranks in the state's 75th percentile.
A student in Palo Alto's 75th percentile, with a combined SAT score of 2180 out of a possible 2400, ranks in the top 2 percent nationally, board members said.
That rarefied atmosphere makes many otherwise excellent students feel like "amateur athletes in an Olympic village," said board member Barbara Klausner.
Skelly and board members said publication of the test data is useful in helping students and families grasp what kind of community they're operating in.
Seven parent members of a group called We Can Do Better Palo Alto said the district's "choice of measurement -- SAT and AP test score -- is not just incorrect, but harmful."
"You talk of broadened access (to AP classes), and I call it increased stress," said parent Michele Dauber, a Stanford Law School professor and co-organizer of the group.
"The picture I see is increasing stress and ramping up the stress-o-meter on our kids right at a time when we should be looking for ways to turn it down."
Parent Wynn Hausser, a member of the group, said the presentation slide lauding "two extraordinary schools" should have been titled "an extraordinary gene pool.
"We're talking about people who would be successful regardless of the quality of the schools, in many cases," Hausser said, suggesting that Palo Alto emulate another high-achieving public school system, Scarsdale, N.Y., which eliminated its AP program in 2007.
Group member Kathy Sharp said many top achievers benefit from expensive tutoring while the school district is "not serving our economically disadvantaged population well."
We Can Do Better members urged the district to broaden its definition of success by adopting other metrics, such as a student's GPA trajectory and successful completion of a course sequence.
While agreeing they would like to explore other measures of student success, including GPA trajectories and extracurricular activities, board members defended publication of the SAT and AP test data.
"For better or worse, this is the environment our kids are being raised in," Klausner said. "We don't want to raise the stress level of our students, but I think it's a very complicated issue."
Noting the stubborn persistence of an achievement gap, particularly among African-American and Hispanic students, Klausner suggested that the board spend time taking a focused look at the district's African-American and Hispanic students, who respectively comprise 3.2 percent and 10.4 percent of current enrollment.
With parents who had eighth-grade educations and little wealth, board Vice-President Camille Townsend said she applauds "when I see access to AP classes for kids who may not look the part."
"We walk a tightrope in this town," Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said.
"These are conversations our community needs to have, and be cognizant that it's a double-edged sword in our schools. If we can offer our students opportunities and support, with resilience and strong mental health -- then we're staying on the right side of it."