Are Children Learning

As TCAP era ends, school districts tout gains and one looks forward to new tests

Late last week the Colorado Department of Education released the latest — and last — round of student results from the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, or TCAP, and ACT. As a state, students showed no progress on the TCAP. In fact, most grades saw slight dips in math, reading, and writing.

Meanwhile, the state’s composite ACT score a third of a point.

Despite the across-the-board dips, some school districts, including those on the state’s accountability watch list, have taken the opportunity to highlight individual gains in specific areas.

Here’s a sample of what some school leaders had to say via statements emailed to the media last week:

Sheridan third graders posted an 18 point gain in 2014. And the district had gains in math at all grade levels, including an 11 point gain by eighth graders. Math has been an area the district has consistently had issues with. Last year, they implemented a second math period at its middle school. Deputy Superintendent Jackie Webb said the number of partially proficient students is decreasing as the district heads into its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock. But the work isn’t over.

“Are the final achievement levels where we want them to be? The answer is no. But progress starts with establishing success and these last two years of data have shown that Sheridan students are fully capable and continuing to meet higher expectations. Overall, we are very pleased with these results.”

Meanwhile, District 49 leaders in Colorado Springs said they’re pleased with the results of their own internal assessments and are looking forward to the state’s new online-based assessments that students will take in spring. “While not satisfactory, [TCAP results] sharpen our urgency to begin the CMAS era with even better results for our students,” said Peter Hilts, chief education officer.

“The new tests are an increasingly valid target for student assessment, they are a more accurate proxy for where students actually are.”

Jeffco Public Schools officials pointed out their TCAP scores “remained relatively stable.” Newly minted Chief Academic Officer Syna Morgan highlighted math and ACT increases while pointing out the the tests are just one data point.

“In math, we saw great gains with our Jeffco eighth and ninth graders who gained three to four points in proficiency from last year. Jeffco continued to outpace the state on the Colorado ACT scores by raising the score from 21.2 in 2013 to 21.5 in 2014. While the TCAP results provide one view of the academic performance of Jeffco students, we look forward to providing a body of evidence to show the full picture of student success.”

While TCAP proficiency rates have stalled in Denver Public Schools, the composite ACT score for the district continues to climb. It jumped about a half a point this year to 18.4. Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a statement:

“While we still have much work to do to realize that goal, it’s encouraging to see more and more of our students reaching these important college readiness benchmarks. Now we need to take our efforts to the next level so that we’re ensuring every student reaches his or her potential.”

Douglas County Public Schools continued to outpace the state in both TCAP proficiencies and the ACT, said Superintendent Liz Fagen. But, like Jeffco, Fagen said TCAP is just one data point. Her statement also highlighted that Highlands Ranch and Ponderosa high schools outscored several of the world’s best countries on the international PISA tests.

“Providing a world-class education for all students is our goal and TCAP scores are one data point. However, we know that a quality body of evidence is the best picture of how our students are doing on the outcomes we value most — we are committed to measuring what matters most using the best strategies for our students.”

Adams 50 school district leaders say they’re on to something with their competency-based model. The district, another of the state’s lowest performing, showed gains in 19 of the 24 TCAP tests, more than any other district in the Denver-metro area, said Superintendent Pamela Swanson.

“The latest results are further evidence that our [competency-based system] model is the right approach to educating all our children. While comparisons with other districts help to illustrate a positive trend, we won’t be satisfied until all our students are learning to their full potential.”

Q&A

This Wayne Township school made big gains on ISTEP, and its principal said teachers sticking around was key.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township participate in an English lesson.

As the kindergartners at Robey Elementary School shuffled down the hallway in a single-file line, the wings on their festive construction paper bat headbands flapped softly.

When Principal Ben Markley walked by, the kindergartners jostled to greet him, one after another giving a tiny wave by bending their index fingers up and down. Bat wings flapped furiously.

“Are we working hard today?” Markley asked as he approached, returning what he dubbed the “kindergarten wave” by waggling his own index finger.

“Yes!” the kids chorused back excitedly.

Markley continued down the hallway, explaining that he created the wave to give some of the school’s youngest students a special way to connect with him — a better option than running up and gluing themselves to his legs, he said.

He is now in his fifth year at Robey, a school with more than 750 students located in the northwest corner of Wayne Township. In fact, Markley has spent his entire career as an educator in Wayne Township. And he’s not alone: Of the 20 Robey teachers who taught grades that took ISTEP last year, 19 stayed on from the year before.

Markley says that retaining teachers and staff has afforded students immense benefits — not the least of which that the school made some of the largest gains of any township school on last year’s ISTEP test.

Chalkbeat sat down with Markley recently to talk about the school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Your passing rate for English and math went up about 8 percentage points from last year, and your letter grade went up from a B to an A. What was your reaction when you learned that?

Two years ago we were pretty disappointed with some of our scores. We saw some areas in math that we thought we should be addressing a little differently — the way our teachers were thinking about curriculum and really the depth and the rigor that we were presenting to our students.

There was this pretty big gap between what we were asking our kids to do and what was on the state assessment. We talked a lot about that last year. We spent a lot of our professional development time thinking about what are the deeper thinking skills that students need, especially in math. We sometimes called it how do we get kids to grapple with problems. How do we get them to show perseverance and dedication and be able to learn from mistakes — to make a mistake and accept that mistake and say, how do we grow from this?

We haven’t had the teacher turnover that some schools have had. And so (teachers within every grade) are becoming content and curricular experts. When you put smart people in the room together talking about how they teach something, they are able to share lots of great ideas.

To see that pan out in improved performance — that’s what you’re so excited about. That’s why you put all that effort and time and energy and debating and conversation in, because then our hard work paid off, and that’s rewarding for teachers.

What is your school community like?

We are about 52 to 53 percent free and reduced lunch this year. We’re about 50 percent white, about 35 to 40 percent African American and about 10 percent Hispanic.

It feels almost neighborhood- or community-like being back here. I think families know that they can come here and they can partner with staff members to try to find the best ways to help their children. We serve rural families and out-of-district families who choose to come to Robey, and we take pride in that fact.

What is your approach to leadership?

I think we have very talented, dedicated, smart people, and so I feel like my job is to get them the resources that they need. I trust the decisions that teachers make. So I want them to feel empowered to make those decisions and suggest those changes and improvements that help us move forward as a school.

I talked about staff continuity already. I think that is something I maybe even initially underestimated how important it was. It fosters a sense of collegiality. They know they’ve got each others’ backs.

It also just gives them time to wrap their minds around our curriculum. The first time you teach it, that’s a big undertaking. It’s overwhelming. And so to have consistency (with our teaching staff) from year to year … was critical to our success.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.