Low scores prompt district challenge: what can we do better, now?
Some schools faired well; others showed rather dismal progress under the state's new way of measuring school performance, called Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR). On Thursday, Winona School Board members examined the latest numbers (see chart), with some wondering what can be done, now, to help students who are falling well behind proficiency expectations.
Board member Mohamed Elhindi produced what he called a "challenge" for district staff and administrators: "What can we do during the school day that we are not doing?" he asked. "I think staff are phenomenal, but we need to do more. The data says we need to do more." What, he asked, can we implement in the next two weeks that will make a difference to kids who are struggling at Winona Area Public Schools?
Administrators promised to tackle the question in the coming weeks, after collaborating with school principals on ideas for changes that could be introduced quickly in response to the MMR data. Curriculum Director Jenny Bushman said that Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), which are committees at each school charged with examining test data and improving student performance, will spend time dissecting the data to see exactly where kids are struggling, which kids are struggling, and what can be done about it.
Bushman explained the new MMR system, a way to measure school performance, was put into place following the state waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind mandate. Using a complex formula, the school MMR reports use a combination of test scores, year-to-year academic growth, graduation rates and progress toward shrinking the achievement gap between middle class white students and minority students. The formula takes the sum of numbered “point system” scores and divides them by the total number of points assessed for each school, producing an MMR percentage for the school.
For some of the schools with rather lackluster MMR scores, Bushman said that the academic growth component of the rating was one that presented challenges. The state calculates the growth score based on predictions made for specific student "cohort" growth, she said; simply put, the state looks at a group of students and their test scores the previous year, and then places a prediction or expectation of how much they ought to learn by the next testing cycle. For some of the schools, said Bushman, there was very little growth, which pulled down MMR scores. In others, like Goodview, Jefferson and W-K elementary schools, growth scores were about as high as they could get. "Growth is a part of this now, and at Madison, there wasn't growth," she said.
"The data is important," continued Bushman. "It tells a story, and I think we need to look at that story." But, she said, it is important to remember that much of the data is derived from one test.
In response to several board questions about the disparity between schools, Bushman reminded them that 11th grade math tests, which were some of the lowest measured, were not required for graduation. There could be a lack of motivation, she said, since students are aware that a passing grade is not required. Others wonder whether the assessment is truly aligned to what is taught. Bushman said that the math standards are closely aligned with curriculum, although some people question whether the current math requirements are what students should really be learning in order to graduate high school. Whether those math concepts are taught at the right time for students to really hone those skills for the test is another thing Bushman said needed to be studied. The language arts standards are relatively new, said Bushman, adding she couldn't say with confidence the curriculum and tests are as closely aligned as they are in the math realm.
Board member Ben Baratto suggested that the district look into a successful online math supplement program that allows students struggling in certain areas to go over instructional videos at home. It's a concept that is used in a method called "flipped classrooms," where teachers have students watch an instructional video at home, then spend class time working one-on-one with those who are struggling with the lesson. Superintendent Scott Hannon said district teachers and administrators are studying the idea and coming close to piloting it in several classrooms.
Elhindi wondered if there wasn't a way that students who are having a hard time with a subject could get extra help outside of the regular school day, such as partnering with Miller Mentoring to include targeted help after school. Several administrators said that the district can't force kids to participate in study outside of the school day without providing transportation, and suggested remedial help would be better placed during regular school hours.
If the remediation must happen during the school day, replied Elhindi, what can the district do differently to help? The data, he said, is crystal clear: "We have a lot of work to do here," he said. "We've got to act, and act fast."
Examining the test data through the PLC committees was one of the ways that administrators said ideas would be generated. "We can talk PLCs all we want," said Baratto, adding that if that was just teachers getting together and talking, it wasn't enough. We need to bring in the experts, he said.
Some PLCs are talking to experts on improvement plans, said Hannon, and Bushman said there were a lot of experts employed by the district already. Teachers need that time to talk and plan, she said.
One of the board's identified goals for the year, which administrators are tasked with studying and implementing, is to find a way to reach students who are falling behind at school, Hannon reminded the board. Following Elhindi's challenge to identify changes that can be put into action in the next few weeks to help those students, the board is expected to continue that discussion at its next regular board meeting.
Board member Steve Schild ended the discussion with a reminder that the numbers, good and bad, are really children. "I really feel for those kids who are having a hard time," he said. "It's more than numbers on a sheet."