This year, a different test will help decide who gets into Newark’s magnet high schools

Last year, the Newark school district scrambled to create a new entrance exam for its coveted magnet schools, raising questions about whether the high-stakes test had been properly vetted.

This year, the district has opted to pay $70,000 for a nationally administered standardized test — the PreACT — which all eighth-graders in Newark Public Schools took on Friday. Students in private and charter schools who hope to attend one of the district’s seven magnet high schools will sit for the roughly two-hour test on Saturday.

Like last year, the district appears to have adopted the test on a tight timeline. The school board approved a contract for the test maker, ACT, Inc., in late January, less than a month before students were slated to take the exam.

The exam, meant to predict how a student will score on a college-readiness test years down the line, could play a major role in determining who gets into the selective magnet schools. Newark’s magnet high schools are geared toward high-achieving students and boast better graduation rates and college outcomes than most of the district’s non-selective “comprehensive” high schools. 

Last year, the exam counted for 40% of prospective students’ rankings at super-selective Science Park High School — more weight than was given to any of the other metrics the school considered, including applicants’ state test scores (30%), grades (25%), and attendance records (5%).

Yet the district has not shared that information publicly in its enrollment guidebook or on the district website. Instead, a Newark parent filed a public records request for Science Park’s admission criteria weights, which the parent shared with Chalkbeat.

“The outreach has to be better,” said Wilhelmina Holder, president of a group that represents Newark high school families, adding that the district should explain to families the specific purpose of the admissions test and how each magnet school plans to use the results. “We really do need to get clarity.”

A district spokeswoman did not respond to multiple emails asking how magnet schools will use the exam results in their admissions decisions or where families can get more information about the exam.

Chalkbeat contacted the test maker to get more details about the PreACT, which the district is now using as its high school entrance exam.

The district purchased a version of the test designed to measure what eighth- and ninth-graders have learned in math, science, reading, and writing. It is a modified version of the ACT, the standardized test meant to gauge students’ college readiness that many colleges use for admissions. The PreACT also includes an interest survey, which can help students with college and career planning, and it predicts what score on a 1-36 scale students are likely to earn when they take the ACT in 11th grade.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said the PreACT results can help schools identify areas where students might need extra support, such as geometry or finding the key idea of a text. While the test was not designed with the “express purpose” of informing high school admissions decisions, it can be useful when deciding whether students are prepared for more advanced courses, he said.

“The test is meant to measure student learning — where the students are academically, what they’ve learned already, and what they’re ready to learn next,” Colby said. “So if schools are using it to determine if a student is ready for a certain level of coursework, that seems like it would be very appropriate.”

The district’s magnet schools enroll about a quarter of Newark high schoolers and are highly regarded, with the most popular ones attracting far more applicants than they have space to admit. The schools, which feature specific themes, such as technology and history, and demanding coursework, regularly outperform most of the district’s comprehensive high schools, which are not allowed to screen applicants. The magnet schools also serve far fewer students who have disabilities or are still learning English.

Some of the schools previously administered their own entrance exams, which the district eliminated several years ago.

“We were the ones who made the test and we were the ones who graded the test,” said a teacher at Science Park. “We tried to match the test to what students needed to be able to do when they came in the door.”

In December 2018, Superintendent Roger León — who attended and taught at a magnet school — said he was bringing back the magnet school entrance exams, though it would now be one test for all the schools. The new exam would ensure that magnet schools only admit students who are committed to the schools’ themes and ready for their challenging coursework, León explained.

“The idea is to make sure that students who choose to go to these schools are going to meet whatever are the demands of that school,” he said in 2018.

The district created the test itself with help from magnet school principals and staffers, but had to postpone the test date due to “logistical” issues. Meanwhile, some experts questioned why the new test was necessary, noting that a study in New York City found that students’ grades and state test scores were more predictive of their ninth-grade performance in the city’s most selective high schools than their scores on an entrance exam.

León has suggested that the results of the entrance exam — which all eighth-graders must take whether or not they applied to any magnet schools — will also be used to select students for advanced or specialized classes at the comprehensive high schools.

Despite the exam’s high stakes, few details have been shared at public board meetings. At this month’s meeting, León simply noted that the test would take place Friday for district students and Saturday for non-district students.

“Reminding everyone that you’re going to need a number two pencil and a calculator for the test,” he said.

ACT said it can return the test results three to four weeks after it receives the answer sheets. On April 12, the district plans to release school matches for the fall, letting students know whether they made it into a magnet school or not.