New Tech GPA Stronger Predictor of College Success

A few weeks ago, I shared that my dual enrollment students' high school GPA was the strongest predictor of college success — stronger even than scores on college placement exams. Last week, it struck me that half the group of students we sent (our juniors) were taught in 100% New Tech courses before dual enrolling in college. The other half were seniors who were taught in traditional classes one year ahead of our New Tech initiative. What a great opportunity for data comparison!

For those unfamiliar with New Tech, let me explain: 

Three years ago, my district contracted with the New Tech Network to support change in our high school in three key areas:

  1. Empowering students through increased voice and choice in their learning.
  2. Engaging students in deeper learning of course content through wall-to-wall implementation of project- and problem-based learning as our instructional model.
  3. Enabling students to foster their own learning by providing them with 1-to-1 technology and teaching them to use it effectively.

As part of this initiative, we spent over 2.5 million dollars renovating spaces, buying furniture and technology, and training teachers and leaders. As a result, our staff is now working collaboratively to design authentic projects. We've moved our teacher desks into one of two "Bullpens" where teachers meet between classes and during prep. We integrate courses whenever integration makes sense. Our students take classes like "GeoDesign," "BioLit," "American Studies," and "Civic Reasoning." Each of these classes have two teachers and more time to learn from their work. We are doing a lot of things differently. And better.

To put things back into perspective, we have two groups of students dual enrolling this year: seniors and juniors. Both were educated by the same teachers in the same school. The juniors are part of our New Tech initiative. The seniors are not. The circumstances are begging for further analysis!

To start, let me describe the students. Last semester, we had 67 students dual enroll: thirty-nine juniors and twenty-eight seniors. Both groups represent what we would consider our "top third" performers (more juniors dual enrolled because their class size was larger). The average high school GPA for the groups were close: 3.39 and 3.32 respectively.

They were also demographically similar. Both groups had a few more boys than girls. They represented only a third of our free and reduced lunch population (only 18% of dual enrolled students vs 55% total high school enrollment). They were racially similar, 99% white, which is consistent with our district and community makeup. 

The one demographic difference that stands out to me is the obvious one: seniors are, on average, one year older than juniors. They also have one more year of high school experience and are one year closer to entering college full-time. While I cannot say that this information is statistically significant, after working in high schools for the past ten years, it feels anecdotally significant.

In college, they also performed similarly when looking at the average. Seniors passed 96% of college classes with a GPA of 3.01. Juniors passed 92% of college classes with a GPA of 2.90. Failure was experienced by just three students, one senior and two juniors.

One other comparison that seems notable is that both juniors and seniors took similar courses in college with one potentially significant exception: being farther ahead in curriculum, more seniors took advanced math than juniors (46% vs 13% respectively). 

Where performance differences become noticeable is in the way individual GPA distributes across students. The graphs below demonstrate that difference by overlapping the distribution of high school and college GPAs for each group independently.

image (3).png

Generally speaking, it is clear that both groups performed better at the top of the GPA range in high school than they did in college; both groups saw fewer individual students with a college GPA in the 3.0—4.0 range. It is notable, however, that the size of the gap between  high school GPA and college GPA at the top of the range is smaller for the New Tech juniors than it is for the seniors (this will be highlighted later). And, while that gap continues to exist — albeit in the opposite direction — for seniors in the middle of the GPA range (1.5–3.0, it seems to disappear for juniors. At the bottom of the range, of course, more juniors than seniors earned a GPA below a 1.5.

The degree to which high school GPA and college GPA move together can be further illustrated in the following two scatterplots:

N=28, R=+0.65, r^2=0.418

N=28, R=+0.65, r^2=0.418

N=39, R=+0.84, R^2=0.705

N=39, R=+0.84, R^2=0.705

As previously reported, there was a strong positive correlation between high school GPA and college GPA for all dual enrolled students (r=+0.74). As this data shows, the correlation was higher for juniors (r=+0.84) than it was for seniors (r=+0.65). And, while I do not have the mathematical chops to tell you yet whether or not this difference (r=+0.19) is groundbreaking, I can only tell you that I find it encouraging.

As an educator, I strive to give students accurate information about their potential to succeed after high school. I find it satisfying to learn that our New Tech initiative may be increasing that accuracy. 

Time will tell whether or not this trend will continue. I don't want to make any broad claims about why our New Tech educated students' GPAs are better predictors of college success. I will, however, close with some wonders:

  1. I wonder what effect our measurement of skills (collaboration, agency, oral & written communication) in addition to content is having on high school success as it relates to college success? 
  2. I wonder if this trend will continue with our next group of New Tech students who dual enroll? Specifically, I wonder if the model will apply equally to lower high school GPA-earning students?
  3. I wonder if other New Tech high schools have found similar results. 
  4. I wonder if I will be satisfied if the only quantifiable difference between our New Tech educated students' college success and those students taught in our traditional high school is this increase in our ability to predict said success? I wonder if our community would be satisfied?
  5. I wonder what questions I'm not asking that may have compelling answers in this data?

Our New Tech students are taking the ACT for the first time next week. We will also begin scheduling our second group of Early College participants. I can't wait to add this data to the mix for further analysis to see how they compare.


Here are the slides and notes from my Ignite talk from yesterday. Please keep in mind that my notes were just that: notes. I did not say these exact words on stage. When the video goes up, I'll update this post.

I'd like to share a simple idea that changed the way I view my role as a school administrator. In doing so, I'd also like to challenge you to reflect upon your school's current discipline policy and how you personally deliver consequences to the young people you serve.

Before I make my point, though, I need to start with some definitions. Behavioral Psychologists define learning "as the process leading to long-term or potential behavioral change." Typically this takes one of two forms.

Punishment can be defined technically as "any consequence to our behavior that reduces the likelihood that we'll repeat the behavior again." For example, if I ridicule a student for talking in class, and she does not like ridicule, then she is less likely to talk in class in the future. This is punishment.

The flip side of punishment is reinforcement, which can be defined as "any consequence to our behavior that increases the likelihood that we'll repeat the behavior again. For example, if I tell a student that she is a good writer and she respects my opinion then she is more likely to write in the future. This is reinforcement.

Of course, years of living this way in public education have left us all understanding these concepts all too well. Do your work or you will fail. Put your cell phone away or I'll take it away. Raise your hand and then I'll call on you. In public education, we get behavioral modification.

All to often when we talk about disciplining children what we really mean is punishment. I'd like to make the point today that discipline and punishment are not the same thing. Discipline is something we want our students to embrace from within. Punishment is a tool frequently used in schools that comes from without.

The message to the punished is this: "You're not able to discipline yourself. You have done something wrong. Therefore, we're going to do bad things to you to teach you a lesson." The very nature of this is the opposite of empowering. It removes power.

It was the realization that if I'm to create a culture that is truly empowering then I must punish less. In fact, I probably shouldn't punish at all. Instead what I needed to do was find a way to reinforce much, much more.

Because I like and respect you, I need you to know that I'm not crazy. Remember that reinforcement and reward are not the same thing. I'm not recommending that you ignore anti-social behavior and I'm certainly not suggesting that you start giving our lollipops for all types of good behavior.

What I am saying is that we need to find a way to reframe the way we communicate consequences to turn them into reinforcers. Here's a little trick to help you do this: take any traditional punishment, add the preposition "until" followed by a pro-social consequence, and you should have a reinforcing statement. Let's look at an example.

Consider the statement "You have detention." Assuming that the student being assigned detention doesn't like it, the purpose of this consequence is to reduce behavior. By our definition earlier, then, this is punishment. Now, let's take that exact same statement and apply until to turn it into reinforcement.

In this revised statement, notice that the student still has detention, but I've respected the student enough to add a condition to get out. I've turned the traditional punishment of detention into a reinforcer because instead of focusing on reducing bad behavior, I'm focusing instead on increasing good behavior. The student is now more likely to come to me with a plan. Let's look at one more example.

Consider the punishment "Shut down your computer," said to a student for overusing social media during group work time. Never happens, right. This statement, taken at face value, is punishing because its purpose is to reduce social media overuse by this student in the future.

If we apply my rule and add the until to this statement, we change the focus of the consequence form, "You are bad and cannot handle using your computer" to "Let's talk about this later on when I have more time." This student is now more likely to talk to you later, thus it is a reinforcer.

The cynics and psych minors in the room will tell you that things are never this black and white. While issuing these consequences our goal is still to reduce bad behavior. But the focus of the statement has changed from what you are doing to the learner for being bad to what the learner has to do to be good.

The next time and every time that you issue consequences to  students, ask yourself where you're attention is focused? What message are you sending to students about who they are? Have you given ample opportunity to correct what's been done? Is your consequence respectful?

If the answer to these last two questions is no then step back and ask yourself if you're truly empowering students at all. Be tough on yourself to rethink traditional punishments in a way that will shift the focus from what's been done to what can be done.

Take advantage of consequences by treating them as opportunities to connect with students about their decisions and the effects that they have on others. After all, aren't most behavioral issues in schools related in one way or another to relationships.

As a point of caution, don't be creepy by overusing this idea or becoming overly manipulative. For example, don't give students unrealistic expectations to fulfill like raising their grade from a D to an A to regain your trust for using a cell phone during class.

The last point I want to make is to love what you do. If ever you're considering a consequence for a child that doesn't make you feel good about the work that you do, ask yourself if there's another way to frame it so it better aligns with your personal and school philosophy. Thank you.