This is NOT a post about how screwed up the whole high stakes testing and accountability movement is. It is NOT a scathing criticism of NCLB or the misguided goals of our public policy toward schools. It is not a rant about how access to health care for all students would do more to decrease the achievement gap than almost anything the schools themselves could do,or how inadequate standardized testing is a measure of real learning, or how the release of the NAEP test results this past week indicate that there has been very little overall improvement in reading in 4th grade over the past 20 years. And in this post I will NOT lament that we have in effect become glorified testing and tutoring centers as monuments to Stanley Kaplan, or how when it is all said and done– even those schools that create extraordinarily high test results– may not be providing students what they really need to excel as 21st Century citizens.
Rather, this is post is about three students who I most likely would not have met and worked with this week if it were not for the demand from the state of California that we raise our Academic Performance Index– our API.
The API is a composite three-digit score that represents how our students, as a whole, performed on the California Standards Test last May. Every school in California has one. It is a measure of growth from one year to the next. Schools that are standards-based, aligned, focused on children, and utilizing state of the art teaching strategies should be able significantly improve their API each year. All schools in California are expected to find a way to eventually score a minimum of 800.
As expected, schools in more affluent neighborhoods are in the high 800’s and 900’s while schools in lower socio-economic communities tend to score much lower. THAT… is the achievement gap.
Our API at Mueller Charter School was 520 in 1999, and it is now 797. That would be a pretty impressive gain in a lot of places, but here in Chula Vista, there are 5 schools within a few miles of us– with the same demographics– who are now well into the 800’s, including one school that is at 865!
While we are an independent charter school and we are free to design our own program we are also highly competitive. 865? That is where WE are supposed to be! In fact, our charter is based on a promise that 90% of our students– regardless of their socio-economic circumstances– will be at grade level. If 90% of our students were at grade level… our API would be at 900! And that is the bridge we need to cross now.
So we peeked over the fence at what those other schools were doing. We infiltrated their ranks. We looked at the materials they were using and snuck in their classrooms and took pictures. We even bought them lunch and straight-out asked them: “What the hell are you doing to get those results?”
What are you doing that WE aren’t doing?
The answer may surprise you. It may disappoint you. But they are not cheating! They are not just doing test prep activities all day long. They have not abandoned their students who are not likely to score Proficient. They are not disenrolling low performing students or encouraging their parents to transfer to El Milagro.
They are, in fact, aligned in every way to get higher test results. Their teaching, their approach with their parents, their schedule, their instructional strategies, their mindset, their learning activities are all geared for higher test results.
Now that could be good or bad depending on what kids might be missing while they are being offered a school program that is aligned toward test results. But it is hard to argue against schools where kids have developed the basic literacy skills necessary to score higher on the CST than they did the year before.
It is hard to argue against school improvement.
So that brings us to three girls from Ms. Etter’s class that I worked with this past week.
One of our strategies this year is that we have extended the school day by :45 minutes for a targeted group of students– that is, any student not currently at grade level. Every teacher in grades 2 – 5, has identified a dozen or so students who need additional, guided instruction and so they work with them diligently. Every day. Then we created a team of tutors to assist them. That team includes me and our Principal, our head counselors, our school psychologist, all of our Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers, and even Mr. Wizard our technology director. Anyone that is not assigned a class and that has a teaching credential (or something similar) is on the support team! We are each assigned to one classroom where we will work with the two or three of the lowest performing students for the rest of the year. And I have Ms. Etter’s 5th grade.
This week my three students and I worked together on a reading passage that comes from California’s “CST Released Test Questions.“ It was a passage about a music box, accompanied by six, multiple choice test questions. Here is what I learned:
These three students are probably representative of many of our struggling students in California–
• They are English language learners who fell behind early in their school careers.
• They prefer to speak in Spanish because it is easier and because that is what they hear at home.
• They have had only modest gains in language acquisition.
• They were unfamiliar with basic English words, phrases and idioms that appeared in the passage: “attic”, “passed away”, “in the middle of nowhere”…
• In general, they don’t know stuff. What we would assume to be general knowledge for a 5th grader, (aka: Prior Knowledge) they just don’t have… they don’t know much about music boxes or Haley’s Comet, or armadillos or any of the other general topics that appear in expository reading passages on the CST.
• They don’t know that they don’t know stuff.
• They demonstrate limited initiative to learn stuff.
• They don’t have strategies to attack CST questions: particularly ones that are difficult for them.
• They don’t have the patience or the persistence to work through test questions, to eliminate the obviously wrong answers, to search for context, or any other tricks good test takers use.
And even though Cassandra is Far Below Basic and not likely to improve significantly enough to get to grade level this year… if we can move her up at least one proficiency level, it would be a huge gain for her. Then, if we can move all of Cassandra’s Far Below Basic classmates up it would be good for them too. And good for our API. Because if Mueller Charter School was so aligned that we did not have any Far Below Basic students last year… our API would have been up as high as 815.
And if the top half of the students who were Basic had just gotten a few more questions right… enough to be Proficient instead of Basic… our API would have been in the mid 820’s.
Because to compute the API, the state uses a weighting system in which:
The number of Far Below Basic students is multiplied by 200;
The number of Below Basic students is multiplied by 500;
The number of Basic students is multiplied by 700;
The number of Proficient students is multiplied by 875;
The number of Advanced students is multiplied by 1000…
And the numbers add up. And they don’t lie. And stretching organizationally to engender growth for every single child is not just good for the API it’s good for our kids. It creates the possibility for future school success. And it’s good teaching.