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.

The Problem with Boys

As previously mentioned, my high school is now dual enrolling more students than ever — about ten times more. A quarter of all juniors and seniors took half their classes at the community college last semester as part of our early college efforts.

By most measures, these students did very well. As a group, they earned over 95% of the credits they attempted with an average GPA over 3.0. They were, after all, able to dual enroll because of their past performance on standardized tests and high school coursework. They went to college because we thought they were "ready."

Yet, unsurprisingly, not all students performed equally well. About 15% of our dual enrolled students ended the semester with a college GPA below a 2.0.  A few students even experienced their first academic failure in college. So, even within our high average of success, not all students shared the same experience. 

First Semester 2014-15 Dual Enrollment GPA Distribution (N=67)

First Semester 2014-15 Dual Enrollment GPA Distribution (N=67)

We consider this fact — that some students didn't do as well as expected — to be a really big deal. It means that our algorithm for credentialing students for college readiness isn't yet perfect. To be clear, we didn't expect it to be, and while we acknowledge that reaching "perfect" isn't probable, wanting perfect gives us reason to dig into our data in hopes of finding some clues that will help us identify relative risk in the future.

Our biggest takeaway?

Boys did much worse in college coursework than girls — a whole grade point worse, on average.

Girls earned college GPAs that were 1.05 points higher than boys, on average.

Girls earned college GPAs that were 1.05 points higher than boys, on average.

This is despite the fact that girls and boys performed equally on both the COMPASS and ACT assessments, which we use to determine eligibility for college-level coursework. We're talking less than 0.01 difference between boys and girls on these tests.

Being a boy had a stronger negative effect on student success than any other factor: free/reduced status, high school GPA, etc. At the same time, these factors still added to the risk — going to college as a boy receiving free lunch with a high school GPA below 3.0 was clearly tough — these students earned an average GPA below 1.5 in college.

The average college GPA for girls receiving free lunch with a high school GPA below 3.0: a respectable 2.5.  

What now?

We certainly can't increase our requirements for boys above that of girls without raising some eyebrows. What we can do is educate parents and students on the relative risks of going to college and how our data should inform that risk. While hope will likely spring eternal for most, some students may delay college entry in hopes of better results down the road.

We can also raise our expectations overall since doing so would result in sending fewer students with high school GPAs below 3.0. Even though most boys saw their GPA decline in college, the decline was less detrimental on students that started college with a high school GPA that was above 3.0. This seems obvious. It is good to have data to back this up now.

Lastly, I think it's crucial that we think of new ways to support students, specifically these struggling boys, while in college. To do this appropriately, we're going to have to get to know our boys a bit better to start to decipher what is going on. Is it maturity? Is it social expectations? Is it video games? We need to learn more about what is going on with them so that we can build in better supports for them to be successful.