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Truman's principal starts year by checking middle schools' work

Experience has taught Sana Nasser not to take her incoming ninth-graders' test scores at face value. Nasser is the principal of Harry S. Truman High School, one of the Bronx's few remaining comprehensive high schools. Each fall, she requires new freshmen to take diagnostic exams that test their math and writing skills. The students' results rarely correlate with their scores on the state's eighth-grade reading and math tests, Nasser said. The tests are just one component of Nasser's strategy for helping Truman's teachers to understand their students' needs by the end of the first week of ninth-grade. She also collects reams of data from the city about each student's performance and attendance records and compares them to the diagnostics' results. Nasser said the early efforts have been key to keeping Truman above water even as other large Bronx high schools have struggled to stay afloat with many students entering below grade level. Truman regularly pulls B's on its city progress reports and has a four-year graduation rate that's right around the city average. The school-wide diagnostic exams, which Truman's math and English teachers create, accomplish on a vast scale what many teachers do at the beginning of the year: assess their students' skills, so they don't waste time teaching material that students already know or can't handle. By making the assessments consistent for every incoming student, Nasser said she can get a clearer picture of the class as a whole — how students stack up against each other, and how skill gaps vary by middle school. Some schools, she said, routinely send students whose scores seem to be inflated.