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FORT LUPTON — After receiving the 2014 assessment figures from state education officials, Weld Re-8 administrators were able to cobble together a list of what they said are about 30 “celebrations” relating to those latest statistics, which were officially released Aug. 14.
And sure, those same administrators admit some of what they see as celebrations are, in reality, below state averages and below their own, ultimate expectations as leaders in education. But, they contend, it’s important for teachers, students and parents to compare apples to apples. In other words, sometimes you can’t worry about the Joneses.
With that in mind, the administrative catchphrase right now is “cohort data” – data that doesn’t just look at achievement of, say, a 2014 third-grader compared to other third-graders in the state, but rather looks at scores of 2014 fourth-graders and compares that particular class to how it ranked and scored the year before.
In other words, administrators are looking at how their own individual classes are growing compared to themselves.
“To me, that growth is more important than the TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program) scores because comparing fifth grade (last year) to fifth grade (this year) is two different groups,” said Gayle Dunlap, assistant superintendent of elementary student achievement, adding that cohort data helps educators assess which students or grades needs the most help, and where.
“Growth does count and, in a lot of ways, more than overall achievement in the state’s eyes looking at how the schools are doing,” added Scott Graham, Weld Re-8’s director of academic support services. “I think it’s the growth, the improvement in the student that matters most.”
And while cohort data does show individual class growth, the latest figures also show improvement even when comparing “apples to oranges,” in other words, straight-up comparisons in each category.
Studying the numbers
In fact, a brief overview of the four schools in the district — Quest Academy’s scores were absorbed into Twombly and Butler elementary schools in 2014, but will be broken out on its own beginning in 2015 — shows eight of the 11 classes that are assessed improved in at least one of three subjects. Overall, of the 33 total categories, 17 – just more than half – saw at least a slight improvement compared to 2013 figures.
Last year’s Twombly third- and fifth-graders showed higher advanced or proficient percentages across all three academic categories – reading, writing and arithmetic (or math) – as did last year’s Butler fourth-graders.
Butler third-graders improved in both writing and math – so much so that their advanced or proficient percentages (54 and 75 percent, respectively) were higher than state averages. Twombly fifth-graders also beat the state benchmark in math (66 percent compared to a 65 percent state average) and nearly matched the median percentage in writing (54 percent compared to the state average of 55). Meanwhile, Fort Lupton’s middle school students – specifically eight-graders – matched the state’s 52 percent advanced or proficient math scores, despite dropping 2 percent from 2013.
Using those figures, Karla Reider, assistant superintendent of secondary student achievement, provided a chart that she said shows the district is “closing the gap” in regard to meeting those state averages.
Take, for instance, the most-pronounced improvement: The district’s third-graders were 23 percent behind the state average in writing (28 percent advanced or proficient compared to 51 percent statewide) in 2013, but only 5 percent behind in 2014. Across all grades, third through 10th, the district made up a whopping 25 percent in writing. The 5 percent district-wide overall percentage jump in math was another “celebration” for the district, albeit a smaller one.
In that subject, third- and fifth-graders each closed the gap by 13 percent, but were offset by a 13 percent drop in seventh-grade scores. Seventh-graders were just 40 percent advanced or proficient in math compared to 55 percent in the state – a sharp contrast from last year when they were only 2 percent off the mark.
The district’s gap widened a bit in reading in 2014. While third-, fourth-, fifth- and ninth-graders all decreased the percentage gap – fifth-graders by an impressive 14 percent – a 25 percent gap in tenth-grade reading compared to state percentages led to an overall 4 percent gap increase when comparing the district to the state.
A matter of perspective
Graham said that even advanced or proficient percentage statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, as they fail to really take growth into consideration.
“It’s kind of funny because you can have some real growth and not see that in proficient or advanced because a kid could go from (not) proficient to high, high, partially proficient, but that still wouldn’t make a percentage change,” he said.
Whether that partial improvement can be called progress is hard to gauge by the numbers alone. When looking at district wide percentage changes in five categories including unsatisfactory, partially proficient, proficient, advanced, and advanced/proficient, perhaps the easiest way to gauge improvement is by looking at how each grade fared in each of the categories, in each subject. With five categories per subject, there’s a total of 15 categories where percentage changes can show upward or downward trends.
For instance, third-graders continue to stand out in the district, showing repeated year-to-year growth – and 2014 was no exception. In one particular subject, writing, not only did third-graders improve in four of the categories – including going down in percentage of unsatisfactory achievement – they had the highest percentage increases in advanced, advanced/proficient and proficient of any students in any grade. Out of all three subjects and 15 categories, fifth-graders improved in 11 of them, and improved the most of any grade level in five categories. Similarly, fifth-grade students also had marked improvement: They had percentage increases in nine categories and improved more than any other grade in the district in six of those categories, including three of the five in reading.
Seventh- and tenth-graders brought up the back of the pack, improving in only four of the 15 total categories. Seventh-graders’ nearly 8 percent increase in partially proficient math students was the only place where the middle-schoolers outshined their peers. Similarly, tenth-grade readers added the most partially proficient students, but fared poorly in other categories. While more than 7 percent of students moved to partially proficient in writing, they achieved less than a 1 percent increase in advanced or proficient students in that subject.
But even downward trends can produce positive results, Dunlap pointed out.
“At least we know where we need to direct our focus,” she said.
with the best
Although it won’t impact districtwide scores, administrators said the recent designation of Quest Academy as an official school means those test scores coming out of the Core Knowledge program will likely give some of the top schools in the state a run for their money.
Though the state embedded Quest test scores with Twombly and Butler, administrators chose to break those figures out and were excited about what they saw.
Of all the “celebrations” on their list, Quest’s was arguably most impressive: 93 percent of Quest students in grades three through five were proficient or advanced in reading and math; 85 percent of students in grades six through eight were proficient or advanced in reading and writing, and 91 percent of them were also average or better in math. And according to figures compiled by administrators, fifth-graders grew by 77 percent in math while seventh-graders showed a 69-percent improvement in the subject.
Quest’s achievements could prove to be a boost to the whole district, which is hoping for an upgrade from the state in regard to performance framework. The district is currently ranked as “priority improvement plan,” but administrators think the latest TCAP figures will help move them up one more step.
“We own this
In the meantime, all the administrators touted the many steps in place for continued improvement in achievement. Beginning this year, the district has conspicuously posted their “playbook” outlining the district’s goals in terms of achievement. Administrators said the playbook helps provide a guideline to parents, students and staff alike of what the district is trying to do.
Teachers are also afforded 90 full minutes a week to meet and discuss data and what to do with that data, including adapting curriculum to student needs. Those needs are then worked into what Dunlap called “curriculum maps,” which outgoing superintendent Mark Payler said serve as “the foundation of classroom instruction.”
“It’s about having everything mapped out,” Dunlap said. “If you’re going to spend so much time doing assessments with the state, and there’s a lot of assessments out there, you better make it worthwhile.
“Having those assessments up front helps guide (teachers’) instruction,” she added. “They’re not teaching to the test – there’s a big difference – but this way, they’re making sure their instruction meets the rigor the state is asking for.”
Dunlap said the district is also this year featuring “data wells” for teachers, not students, with the idea that, if everybody can see how a teacher is performing, it will help teachers work cooperatively while also creating more accountability for individual staff members.
“I think … the initiatives do build in accountability, but I think there’s more to it,” Reider said. “There are opportunities … of building a collaborative and supportive environment across the district. It’s like ‘You know what? We all own this data together. And we’re going to work together to make the improvements we need.’”
Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or firstname.lastname@example.org.