November 30, 2018

Success Academy 3: The Test

by StartUp

Background show artwork for StartUp

The Story:

Success Academy’s state test results are truly remarkable — their students score in the top one percent in New York State, often beating out kids from the wealthiest districts. And the network's reputation is built on these results — it’s a big part of how they attract new students, win over donors, and get approval to open school after school.

To find out how Success gets these scores, we go inside their test-taking machine. There are puppies and toys, “pump-up” songs, and a crazy event at the 19,000-seat Barclays Center called Slam the Exam. And, of course, there’s lots of test prep. We’ll hear from students and teachers who’ve grown skeptical of all the time devoted to getting good scores. We’ll see how significant passing the state test can be for a student who’s struggled. And we’ll hear Eva Moskowitz defend her school’s intense focus on test prep, which she prefers to call “mastery.”

The Facts:

Peter Leonard mixed the episode. 

Our theme song is by Mark Philips. 

Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. 

Additional music by Peter Leonard, Bobby Lord, Hayley Shaw, Hot Moms Dot Gov, Marmoset, and Takstar.

Where to Listen


Kids cheering

LISA: Thousands of elementary school students from Success Academy gathered for a massive pep rally last spring.

JEN: Good morning Success Academy.

LISA: It’s a week before the New York State standardized tests … something that Success Academy takes very seriously. Ever since its students  have been taking the tests, they’ve outperformed city averages by a very wide margin. The kids had come from more than 20 schools across New York City to a huge arena in Brooklyn to get psyched for the tests. The energy in the room was wild.


JEN: Welcome to the 2018 Slam the Exam pep rally. Can I get a cheer?

Kids cheering

LISA: Taking center stage are two Success Academy principals. They're wearing tracksuits. One orange. One blue. The Success Academy colors.

JEN: Mr. Rojas I cannot believe that we are here at Barclay’s Center. Can you guys believe it?

ROJAS: Look around guys.

LISA: The Barclays Center is where Drake performed earlier this year, where Brooklyn’s NBA team the Nets play. It’s impressive … especially for the kids.

KID: This place has to be the biggest place I've ever seen in my life.

LISA: The crowd of 3rd and 4th graders makes a sea of blue and orange — they’re wearing costume glasses, bandanas, and headbands with springy pom-poms. The kids all have bright orange t-shirts with the words … Slam the Exam. From the merch to the messaging, it’s clear that a lot of careful planning went into this event. And it’s paying off — the kids are amped. Our producer Heather Rogers checked in with a few of them who’d been doing practice tests for weeks.

HEATHER: How do you feel about the tests?

KID: I feel excited. All these past days I’ve been passing so I’m not really scared. We’re gonna really work hard on the state tests.

HEATHER: You’re dancing now.

Kids singing along

LISA: The kids, the teachers, they’re all dancing. It feels exciting, but also a bit surreal. Even though we're not here for a championship basketball game, it feels like we are, precisely because Success Academy approaches the state tests with the intensity that an NBA team might take into the finals. It’s something so ingrained in the students … they sometimes forget that it’s not a game… as our producer Angelina Mosher found out.

ANGELINA: how do you feel right now?

KID: I’m very excited, we’re going to win.

ANGELINA: What are you guys going to win?

KID: Just the whole team.

ANGELINA: Is there a competition?

KID: I don’t know. I don’t really know.

ANGELINA: But you just know you’re going to win. OK.

LISA: About midway through the program, the head coach… Success Academy’s founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz… climbs onto the stage in her trademark high heels and dress, to speak to the audience of 8 and 9 year olds.

EVA: Wow it’s so inspiring to see all of you here.  

LISA: Eva tells the kids that their parents and teachers believe in them … but most importantly, they need to believe in themselves. And then, she gets down to business. If there was any confusion about what exactly was going to happen the following week, she clears that up right away.

EVA: You need to read the question carefully. If you get the question wrong, you can’t get the answer right.

LISA: With Eva... it’s less hype and more homeroom.

EVA: Always go back to the text to find the answer. Always double check your work, and you will do wonderfully.  

LISA: But after she gets off the stage, the hype rushes back in… and you gotta hand it to them... this thing is so perfectly produced.

TEACHER: All right, so we want to end this correct. And we want to remind you guys that all the times that you’ve been studying, every bit of practicing is to prepare you. Today is about you, and what you are willing to give. Hands up. Stand up. Hands up. and This is your fight song. You represent Success Academy. Hands up.


LISA:  Welcome to StartUp. I'm Lisa Chow. Success Academy worked really hard to pull off this event… but if you think this was elaborate, wait till you hear how they actually prepare the kids for the state tests.

Slam the Exam is just a tiny part of the test taking juggernaut. Success Academy has done well on the tests year after year, from when it was just one school in Harlem, to now, when it’s a network of 47 schools across New York City. And the charter school network’s continued growth depends, in part, on its test scores.

Today on the show, we’re going to try and understand just how Success Academy is getting these scores. Turns out the answer is complicated… and it goes well beyond pure test prep…

Ok, I think it’s really worth understanding just how off the charts Success Academy test results are. In New York City, there’s a highly selective program in the public schools. It’s called gifted and talented. Kids have to take a test, and only those who score in the 97th percentile or above are allowed into the program. They’re mostly white or Asian and middle class.  


Now, Success Academy kids, by contrast, are mostly black and Latino, and come from poor backgrounds … And Success students are doing just as well on the state math test as the kids who got into the Gifted and Talented program. So you’ve got disadvantaged kids performing on par with the very top tier public-school students.  

But before we get into what Success is doing to get their amazing test scores, we need to understand why these scores are so important to the organization. I asked Eva Moskowitz about this.

LISA: Why do the test scores matter to you?

EVA: Well they have a practical significance for kids right? We live in a performance culture where you can't get into college without good S.A.T. scores and good grades.

LISA: Eva wants to keep her original promise to parents, getting their kids into college, but there’s another reason she cares about the tests. A bigger reason.

EVA: We think it's really really important to reverse the achievement gap. So we are looking at the wealthy suburbs — how does Chappaqua do? How does Scarsdale do? How does Jericho do? If you're going to reverse the achievement gap you have to do better than those affluent districts.

LISA: The better Success Academy’s test scores are, the more powerful Eva’s message is to New York, and the rest of the country: that she’s figured out how to close the achievement gap. That she’s cracked the code. And that message has a lot of cachet with people who have a lot of political power and money … namely politicians and wealthy donors … two groups that Eva needs because she’s got big plans. She’s racing to double the number of Success schools in New York City over the next decade. So if Eva wants to continue to grow, she needs those test scores.

To understand how Success is getting those scores, we're going to go back to the school we visited in the first episode, a Success Academy elementary school in Brooklyn, to a kindergarten class. This is where the foundation for Success’ test scores is built.  

SHANNON: The word is fish. The word is fish.

KIDS: Fish!


KIDS: Fish!

SHANNON: Break down fish.

KIDS: F-I-S-H. Fish!

LISA: Shannon Palmer is leading her class of 4 and 5 year olds in their daily phonics lesson. The kids are sitting cross legged, hands folded, in their assigned spots on a rug in the middle of the room. Success has high expectations for how its students behave. Staying focused and engaged is key.


KIDS: C-L-O-CK. Clock!



LISA: Success expects a lot from parents, too. Dropping off their kid literally a minute late is considered a tardy. If their kid is out sick... even if it’s for just one day, they need a note from the doctor. And parents are expected to be very involved in their kids’ learning. They have to read 6 books a week with their kid and keep track of it in a log that the kids turn in to their teachers.

And the teachers … Success puts a lot of pressure on them too. They’re supposed to know exactly where their students are, with their learning, every day. Just a few weeks into kindergarten, Shannon starts a process of giving her kids regular quizzes, which are also called exit tickets. Based on the results, she tailors her instruction for each kid. It’s all part of an intense feedback loop between Shannon and her students.

SHANNON: Just staying that course of every single day making sure that all of these kids do this exit ticket studying that exit ticket making small groups for the following day and then giving that lesson basically again. But a little bit different. And then studying that scholar work and seeing the growth is totally amazing.

LISA: Success’ expectations of kids being disciplined, parents being involved, and teachers like Shannon giving constant feedback, they continue when students leave kindergarten. In first grade, in second grade. And as new kids come into Success, they get inculcated too.

Some argue that Success uses these expectations to push out lower performing students, which would boost their test scores. We’ll follow up on this critique in a later episode.

The pressure of these expectations really intensifies in third grade. That’s the first year that all public school kids take the standardized state tests. Madeleine Woo experienced this first-hand. She was in third grade at Success last year, when she talked to our producer Heather Rogers.  

HEATHER: What did you do in school today?

MADELEINE: In school we got ready for the test.

LISA: She said test prep started in January, three months before the actual tests were given. What they did during the school day began to change... like, they started doing more multiple choice questions on the passages they were reading in class.

MADELEINE: You have a text and you write a main idea and you bubble in answers.

LISA: She also said that as part of the prep, her class learned a test taking strategy for multiple choice questions, what Success Academy calls the “plan of attack.“  

MADELEINE: The plan of attack is you would cover up the answers. Then you would read the question, interpret the question. Then once you figured out what the question was asking you, you would go back into the text and find evidence to support your answer. And then you would mark off the answers one by one.

HEATHER: So you’d mark off this one isn’t right, this one isn’t right until you get to the one that’s right?

MADELEINE: Or, instead of just circling immediately, you would use a magic maybe. Which means it might be right or it might be wrong. And then if it was the only magic maybe, it would be the answer.

LISA: So that’s the magic maybe. As for crossing out answers that are wrong, that’s called “slash the trash.”


LISA: Then in February, two months before the state reading test, Madeleine and her classmates started working in booklets full of practice test questions. When they were done with the questions, teachers would collect the bubble sheets, and could see relatively quickly what types of questions the kids were having trouble with. Main idea questions, inferential questions, questions about key action details. And similar to what Shannon does in kindergarten, they’d pull small groups and adjust their lessons, to help the kids do better next time around.

Madeleine has been at Success since kindergarten. Her parents chose Success because of the art, the chess, the regular field trips. And they were really happy … till Madeleine got to third grade. Her mom, Emily Chang, says that’s when they started to question the intense focus on tests.  

EMILY: That's how Success advertises itself. We can get these numbers, and it's pretty amazing so there's something that they're doing that works but I'm wondering at what cost that they do and that's where my husband and I are right now.

LISA: By March, a couple of weeks before the big day, Madeleine was spending several hours a day preparing for the tests.

HEATHER: How do you feel about having spent that much time?

MADELEINE: I feel like we’re basically doing similar things most of the time. Though it helps us it kind of like, sometimes I get a little tired of it because we’re doing it over and over again.

HEATHER: Did it make you feel differently about school, cause you didn’t do it in second grade or first grade?

MADELEINE: It made me feel like, in first grade and second grade, they were nice to me and they weren’t that strict like you had to practice this the whole time in the morning. They had more time to like do fun things with you. But I feel like in third grade, they just want you to get the test prep.

LISA: Jessie Shabin knows exactly what Madeleine is talking about. She taught at Success for four years … and she taught third grade three years ago. And her kids did really well on the tests — 100 percent passed the math test and 88 percent passed the reading test. She says in the weeks before the first state test, kids were spending three hours in the morning, preparing for the reading test, and three hours in the afternoon, preparing for the math test. During that time they’d work through practice questions in their booklets. And then as a class… they would discuss various approaches on how to read a text or work through a math problem, and after that, the kids would go back and revise their work.

LISA: How do the kids how do they have the endurance? I mean six hours a day...

JESSIE: That's a big topic that we talk about and we troubleshoot as a staff. You know, it's always being discussed. The kids are losing stamina. How do we keep the energy up? How do we keep kids invested? In my class. We did all sorts of cheers and some of my kids did raps and I also remember playing this one… it's so weird ...this one Madden commercial. It's like you're up at like 10:30 googling motivational video because that is something they tell you explicitly like you have to have a pump up. So I stumbled upon this video game trailer and even know they made trailers for video games and it was Ray Lewis. I don’t know who this person is. He's just like saying like locker room stuff that you would say to a football team. That's like... The pain makes me stronger. I get hit I get up. I don't know. How will you be remembered? What is your legacy?

RAY: How will you be remembered? Why wouldn't you fight for the greatest achievement ever? Leave your mark to endure forever.

JESSIE: I would do crazy stuff. I would be embarrassed if they had videos of me like yelling, I ain't afraid of no test. This test is afraid of me... like stuff that I'm squirming in my seat talking about now.

LISA: I’m just imagining a bunch of 8 year olds watching this video and I’m thinking what is going on here? What does this have to do with tests? But maybe you need a football player yelling at you when you’re training this hard?

Jessie also described Success using an elaborate system of rewards to keep the kids working hard. Aside from the pump up videos, the school used a classic kid motivator: toys. Jessie said every teacher got a big bundle to give to the kids … things like basketballs, mini guitars, science kits.

JESSIE: I will say that at my school teachers were pretty resistant to the toys because it's just like, it just feels like, even as a teacher, it just feels wrong... like I'm not, this isn't Chuck E. Cheese. It feels wrong.

LISA: But it wasn’t just toys … there were also these things called “effort parties.” Every day, kids would be evaluated on whether they met their goals to reach a certain score and to show effort. To be fair to those who struggled, each kid had their own score goals. Teachers would assess effort based on whether the kids were using the plan of attack. Jessie would walk from desk to desk with a clipboard, jotting down, were her students covering up multiple choice answers with their hands? Did they underline certain parts of reading passages? Did they slash the trash?


LISA: If kids met their goals , they could go to the effort parties, which sometimes involved things like dancing, ice cream sundaes. One time, a bunch of puppies were brought to Jessie’s school, and the kids got to play with them. On the other hand, the kids who weren't meeting their goals, they weren't invited to the effort parties. Instead, they'd have to go to a separate room for what Success calls "effort academy" to go over their work again and fix their mistakes.

JESSIE: Yeah you can identify them in the hallway because their shoulders or drooping. They're there on a walk of misery.

LISA: Did kids ever talk to you about feeling sad about not being able to go to the other party?

JESSIE: Oh yeah. All the time.

LISA: What would they say?

JESSIE: they were very concerned like the first thing they would ask you after you graded their work is like am I going to the effort party. And then if you said you're like well let's see. Let's let's look at your goals and let's look at what you did. And if you like I'd never go to the effort party. I've like kids say things to me like I'm not smart or they'll point out the kids who they'll be like Oh so-and-so always goes to the effort party. It's public knowledge. It's not something that escapes them.

LISA: All the time and resources Success spent on getting her elementary-school kids ready for these tests, and the effect it had on kids when they weren't doing well on them, made Jessie start asking a basic, hard question: was all this work really in the best interest of kids? Because during this time, Jessie says, it felt like school became a place to endure for a lot of her students. Maybe they were developing grit and resilience, but their passion for learning seemed to suffer.

JESSIE: I'm not against tests. You know, I think kids benefit from having positive testing habits, but the testing machine went so beyond building testing habits. You would see stuff like really really advanced kids dumbing down their work. Because they had internalized the formula so well that they weren't taking risks with their writing or with their ideas. They would just identify the two point response write it down and then move on. And then on the other hand the kids who are struggling, for all of those repetitive days, you’re being told that you failed.

LISA: Last winter, Jessie decided to visit some sought-after public schools in New York City. It was right around the time that Success was ramping up its test prep for the year. And what she saw was very different from what she’d experienced at Success.

JESSIE: When you walk into those rooms, they're all working on projects. Like the girl... she was like in fourth grade and talking about the intersection between religion and architecture and she was working on a scale model of something like a Mayan temple. Somebody else was working on, um, family structures. Somebody else was working on myths. Like there was a lot of student choice. It was noisy. The way they were collaborating with one another and the way that they were uh, directing their own learning and using their own time, like you hear kids being like, well, let's spend like 10 more minutes on this and then let's start working on the caption because like we need to get that started. Whereas like in Success if you've been in the rooms, it's like they don't get to really have that kind of unstructured time that teaches them how to function that way. There's a timer at the front of the room when it buzzes, you're moving on to the next activity.  

LISA: Seeing this comparison was sobering for Jessie and made her question the quality of the school life her students had experienced at Success. The kids at the fancy public schools were being trusted in a way that her kids at Success were not … and they owned their learning. They seemed genuinely interested and knowledgeable about the things they were studying. And this gets at a core question — what makes for a good education? Is getting high test scores the same as learning? Are they truly interchangeable?

JESSIE: I would always brag about my students to... or just tell people like they're just so they're just really uh hardworking and smart and they can do anything and like they can they can do anything. And then when I was talking to some of these students at these desirable district schools, I was just imagining them, you know, if we had to gather them onto a panel to just discuss things that they know about the world I didn't feel as though my students would be able to compete with the students that I was talking to at these district schools. The leadership talks about Westchester a lot about how you know, we're outperforming Westchester and the articles that journalists write often compare the test scores at success schools to wealthier districts. But the thing is that the wealthier districts, they don't care about their state tests. In fact, like the wealthier districts and schools in New York City. You see the parents like opting their kids out in droves like in big numbers. They don't want their kids doing test prep curriculum. They don't care. It's like saying you want a competition and nobody else was playing. I mean, when the most privileged students aren't competing, what does that mean? Like that we outperform them? They're not working on the state test. But those are going to be the the students that they compete with for college admission. So I'm just not convinced that all of this testing emphasis, if it'll bear fruit.

LISA: The reason Jessie left Success was in large part because of the time devoted to test prep. Ultimately she thinks classroom time could be spent more constructively — teaching kids to be self-guided thinkers and doers.


We asked Eva Moskowitz about the preparation third graders do for the state tests. First of all, she was eager to point out, she doesn’t call it test prep, because she thinks that connotes gaming the system. She calls it “mastery”. And she walks us through what she believes that looks like in the classroom. She pulls out something that third graders read during this period.

EVA: Oh this is one of my favorite, “Being Lost” by Karla Kuskin. You take them through the beauty of the poetry the choice of words the meaning. Now after you do that close reading, they’re gonna to be some multiple choice questions. And by the way multiple choice is not evil. It's not torture. It's not beating children. Multiple choice questions can be thinking and thoughtful. I don’t know, in my mind if all test prep looked like that, you would call it darn good instruction. But for some reason maybe because of the opt out movement or because people have anxiety... Look, this is good stuff that the kids are reading.

LISA: She says kids spend an hour a day working through multiple choice and short-answer questions, and then another hour and a half discussing and revising their work. That’s for reading. They do the same for math. So at the peak, kids could be spending 5 hours a day — which isn’t far off from Jessie’s account.

Then we asked Eva an important question that Jessie raised — is it worth comparing Success scores to those from wealthy districts if those kids aren’t spending the same amount of time and effort preparing for the tests?  

EVA: Frankly you know they've... if you were a rich kid you know you don't have to worry about falling on the wrong side of the educational tracks. If you're a legacy kid you have a path forward. That's not the case with our kids.

LISA: One Success Academy principal told us that tests are a sorting mechanism, whether we like it or not. And that if you're a poor kid from the inner city — if you don't have the resources and connections wealthier kids have — high scores on standardized tests are critical to getting access to other educational opportunities. Eva sees the resources Success Academy spends on test prep very differently than Jessie does.  

EVA: I would urge you to think about it. It's a wonderful service that we, on top of everything else we do, the chess the music the dance the after school this elite soccer program on top of everything else, K to 12, we as an organization Success Academy, K through 12, we've taken on that responsibility for parents for kids.

HEATHER: For standardized tests.

EVA: No to get them to master material that every kid should be able to master the kid that the test is just a performance like a soccer game. Now is your chance to get a goal. It's a soccer game. We we... it's not a huge huge deal the be all and end all it's not even if the test stopped tomorrow. No more test. King ruled we're gonna stop tests. We would still believe in preparing kids for rigorous tests. We believe in them. We think that having kids read four passages and answer five questions a passage and write a little essay and then an extended response. These are basic things in education and we, we think all kids should be able to do that.       


LISA: Eva isn’t cynical about test prep the way a lot of other people are. In her view, if kids are preparing for a well designed test that evaluates careful reading, or their ability to engage in complex mathematical thinking, then that preparation is also making them better readers and mathematicians.

But a focus on testing can also have some unintended consequences, as Jessie describes. After many years of this, learning can become transactional. You’re learning to get a score, or a toy, or a party with your classmates.

Success Academy is about getting results, and that may be the purpose of most professions and sports for that matter ... getting results, winning the game... but should that be the purpose of school.

Speaking of results …. It’s time to take that test. That’s after the break.


LISA: Welcome back to Startup. It’s the night before the state test, and we’re with Madeleine Woo. Madeleine’s school came up with a song to get the kids pumped, and she sang it for our producer Heather Rogers.

MADELEINE: Oh don't we look good together. There's a reason why we study so long. Yeah, we know we are slamming together. So today we are going to show you how. Get a good night's rest, plan of attack, always do your best, double check, blame it on my confidence or blame it on my intellect, slam the exam on sight, that's right.

LISA: Madeleine has been doing well on her practice tests, meeting her goals, and so she’s been going to her school’s effort parties. There haven’t been puppies but there have been lots of games, movies, and candy. Madeleine has also been watching motivational videos, similar to the ones our teacher Jessie played for her students.  

MADELEINE: We watched a pump up video on the smart board. So all of us would get ready and motivated by it.

HEATHER: What’s a pump up video?

MADELEINE: It’s a video that says hard work beats talent. And like all of them that we’ve watched has been about like sports.

HEATHER: What were the other kids in the class doing? Were people cheering?

MADELEINE: They were watching cause we couldn’t cheer for it.

HEATHER: Why not?

MADELEINE: Because we had to be silent so we can get all our knowledge in our brain.

LISA: Madeleine says she's feeling nervous... but also confident about how she’ll do on the test. The next day is the big day. Madeleine along with thousands of other Success Academy students across the city head to their schools to take the test. We head to the Success Academy elementary school, the one whose kindergarten class we visited earlier in this episode. Libby Ashton is the principal there, and she’s arriving early …

MOLLY: How are you doing?

LIBBY: good.

LISA: Our producer Molly Messick is there to meet her. Libby wants to get the school set up to make sure everything is perfect so that the kids have their best chance of doing well on the state math test.  

MOLLY: So Libby, this is a big day.

LIBBY: Big day

MOLLY: How are you feeling?

LIBBY: I am... I actually am thinking of the heaters. The day is starting off cold but it’s going to get hot and so fade under.

LISA: She’s worried that hot classrooms will make the kids feel uncomfortable. So she’s developed an elaborate plan with her school’s custodian... Turn the heaters off at 6:15 in the morning, open the windows at 6:30, and close them right before the tests start. As she walks up the stairs, she explains why she’s trying to control every detail that she can.

LIBBY: It can be stressful because if something is off today for any individual kid, sorry we’re on the stairs, every day five flights. Um. That can skew their ability to demonstrate what they know. And that’s why we as adults work so hard to make sure all the factors that are outside of the control of the kid are perfectly set up so that every child comes in and feels like all ducks are in a row, the wind is in their sails heading them in the right direction. And beyond that, it’s gonna be up to them.

LISA: Libby plays music when the kids arrive in the morning.  


LISA: At exactly 7:15, Libby opens the school’s front door to let the kids in. And as they walk in, she gives many of them their own mini pep-talks.

LIBBY: You ready? How ya feeling?

KIDS: Great.

LIBBY: Brain in gear. Focus zone. You’re gonna get after it. OK. Good morning.

TEACHER: It’s already in the bag, you understand.

LIBBY: That is right Jordan.

LISA: You can hear the coach in Libby, cheering her players on as they run onto the court. She pays special attention to kids who might need an extra boost of confidence.

LIBBY: You ready? You got this. Give me a high five. Gimme another high five. You got enough sleep last night?

LIAM: Yes.

LIBBY: And your brain feels what?

LIAM: Ready.

LIBBY: And your heart feels what?

LIAM: Ready.

LIBBY: And your energy feels what?

LIAM: Like energy.

LIBBY: Like a lot of energy? Ok, Liam, I am serious. You have every ability in the world to do this and you know that. And it is up to you. Ok? So you’re gonna get up there and you’re gonna say to yourself in your heart and soul I believe in myself and I want to do this. Got it. Get up there.

LISA: One of the kids Libby is pumping up today is Jayden Clark. He came to Success Academy, from a regular public school, last year. He was supposed to be in fourth grade, but Libby and his teachers quickly realized Jayden was seriously behind. And so they kept him in third grade.

LIBBY: He could not read the texts we were putting in front of him. Let alone the questions about the text. He really struggled to add and subtract single digit numbers. He really really struggled through it and left most of the tests that he took blank in the beginning of the school year.


LISA: Jayden was functioning more or less at a first grade level. We talked to Jayden about what that was like for him. He’s got difficulty enunciating words, something he’s continuing to work on in speech therapy. Jayden said at the beginning of the year at Success, he didn’t like to read.

JAYDEN: I didn’t like to read. I thought that like reading was like some type of punishment.

LISA: Reading felt like punishment. Throughout the year, Libby worked with Jayden’s teachers to give him more individualized instruction. She also figured out stuff that his mom could do with him at home. And his reading improved, a lot. Libby hoped all these efforts would be enough for him to do well on the test.   

And on test day, Jayden and Madeleine and all of the other students in testing grades across the Success network went into their meticulously prepared classrooms to take the state test. A lot of these kids and teachers have been working since kindergarten, to do well on it. The exit tickets, the plan of attack, the pump up videos, the heaters, and then of course, the hours and hours of studying and training. And it all comes down to this.

The kids sat down, opened their test booklets and started working. Libby paced the hallways, anxious about how they were doing. And then, after about 90 minutes, it was all over.


LISA: The way Libby Ashton sees the tests prep, she doesn’t think it has to detract from learning. The tests, she said, can actually make some students feel more committed, more excited. That's because the tests are a very concrete goal, like a sporting event. On a regular school day, kids might not have a clear sense of purpose. With the tests they do. And so do their teachers. It's the difference between running every day for the sake of your health, and training for a marathon. The marathon forces you to focus, to set a schedule, to have discipline. Every day leading up to the tests, kids have very specific goals. And when they meet those goals, they feel like they’re winning. And Libby sees that having something so tangible can move a lot of kids, it can be transformative.  

Four months after Libby gave those pep talks on test day, the scores came in. And we checked in with her.

LIBBY: So I saw the numbers and they were good.

LISA: Good is an understatement. A little over 99 percent passed the math test. Almost 96 percent of her students passed the English test. That’s impressive on its own, but even more so when you consider that it’s double the citywide average for public schools. And at Libby's school, nearly three quarters of the kids are lower income and 90 percent are black.

And Jayden Clark, the kid who struggled to add single digit numbers, he passed both tests, math and English, something Libby and his teachers weren’t sure would happen. He was thrilled and said getting better at reading was huge for him.

JAYDEN: I started feeling proud of myself for once.

LISA: And learning in general … has taken on new meaning.

JAYDEN: It feel like you can accomplish anything. And you can be anything in your life. It’s not other people’s choice to think what you can do.

LISA: Libby said this past year, she saw a huge transformation with a handful of other kids like Jayden who came into third grade reading and doing math at a first grade level.

LIBBY: They came in not believing in themselves.  Why would they? All they had learned is that they can’t do it and that school is hard for them and that they don’t succeed. That has been flipped on its head in one year. And I think that’s even more significant than what they know. It’s who they know themselves to be.


LISA: Jayden Clark is now in fourth grade at Libby’s school. Madeleine Woo, our other third grader, she also passed the state tests. But instead of staying at Success, her family decided to take her out and put her in a traditional public school, in part because the testing focus was just too much for them. Madeleine has a good traditional public school option. But a lot of families at Success Academy don't and they believe Success is their best option, their only option, which is why the charter school network has grown at an incredibly rapid clip. It’s scaled its high expectations, from one school that served 165 kids, to dozens of schools serving 17,000 kids.

There has been a downside to all that growth. It hasn’t shown up in the test scores yet, but it has shown up in other ways.

CANDIDO: As an educator I fell short of my commitment to all children and families at my school. And for that I’m deeply sorry.

LISA: That's next week on Startup.  


LISA: StartUp is hosted by me, Lisa Chow. This episode was produced by Bruce Wallace, Molly Messick, Heather Rogers, and Sindhu Gnanasambandan. Editing by Sara Sarasohn and Emanuele Berry, with help from Caitlin Kenney, Devon Taylor, Kate Parkinson Morgan, Kalila Holt, and B.A. Parker. Fact checking by Michelle Harris.

Our theme song is by Mark Philips. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. For full music credits, visit our website, Peter Leonard mixed the episode.  

Special thanks to Jesse Yarbrough.

To subscribe to StartUp, go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you like to use. And while you’re there leave a review! Find out more about the show at You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

TEACHER: Thank you guys so much. Good luck and remember. You are powerful and you are great and you are going to knock it out. Have a good day.