The topic of test scores, under the banner of “Academic Achievement Summit,” was the focus of the Board of Education Work Session last night at the Havemeyer building.
The "summit" turned out to be a hot ticket in town with a standing room only audience filling the board room. The district’s building principals, several assistant principals, program coordinators and parents were in attendance to hear the presentation and subsequent discussion of tests scores.
The “summit” began with a 30 minute presentation of the data by GPS Special Projects Manager John Curtin, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Stacey Gross and Deputy Superintendent Dr. Ellen Flanagan.
Dr. Gross discussed the intent of using short and long term strategies, while Dr. Flanagan explained the plan to utilize individual school data teams to examine their standardized test data through lens of the areas of concerns.
Curtin began with a timeline outline that gives the Administration and the Board a game plan for analysis. Post the September 1 presentation, the school administration will spend the next two weeks following up on data requests by Board members.
At the next Board of Education meeting, slated for Thursday, September 22, there will be a presentation of this follow-up data. Finally, the administration said it plans to present what will be their “focus on improvement” at the November 3 Work Session. This will include results of the Superintendent Dr. Roger Lulow’s faculty visits as well as a summary of long and short term improvement strategies.
Curtin highlighted several successes such as:
- Growth in achievement in reading and mathematics
in grades 3 through 8
- The percentage of students achieving at the advanced
level in fifth grade math
- The percentage of students completing Algebra 1 by
the end of eighth grade
- The percentage of students achieving at the goal level
in tenth grade writing
- The percentage of graduates with scores of 3+ in one or
more AP courses.
However, the intent of the summit was to have an honest look and discussion about the district’s shortcomings. Writing scores in grades three through eight have declined two years in a row and the 10 year trend is essentially flat. In science, while there has been improvement, the district still lags in all grades and performance levels against benchmark groups.
Curtin noted that over the last two years, the district’s overall ranking of writing scores has dropped from the upper one third to the bottom one third of DRG B. He explained that contrary to some beliefs, the district’s scores have not dropped but have been stable however other schools in DRG B (a comparative group of approximately 18 Connecticut school districts similar to Greenwich Public Schools) have shown improvements which resulted in Greenwich’s relative ranking dropping.
Curtin stated one cause of our lower ranking was where the district starts from; “Basically our grade three test scores do not compare favorably with our cohorts."
Additionally, students are starting from a lower level, he said.
When it comes to movement from grades 5 to 6, we also seem to take "a significant hit.” However, Greenwich shows better growth in scores from third to fifth grade and from third to eighth grade than most other districts. Greenwich ranks sixth out of the 24 districts in DRG A and DRG B districts combined when it comes to growth rate.
Curtin said the district was struggling to explain both the lower starting point and a five-point drop versus other districts which occurs between fifth and sixth grades. The latter issue was discussed in prior years and the possibility of it being caused by Greenwich Public Schools losing higher performing students to private school between elementary and middle school was postulated but not proven.
Curtin also presented material that showed that children who had been in the district at least three years did significantly better than those with less time in the experience. When queried about the need for another set of data points, Curtin explained that more detailed analysis will ensure that we are identifying specific problems and arriving at the appropriate solutions as well as avoiding discarding programs which in fact may be effective.
Board member Leslie Moriarity added that she felt such detailed was critical in to “understand the why; we need to know how certain groups are doing on tests. Why are we lagging? Subgroups illuminate the whys.”
Steve Anderson, board chairman, instructed the board that the focus wasn’t simply to be on the data but “what are the thematic issues and what are the policy questions and responses that we need to explore to improve our academic performance.”
It was suggested last night that when analyzing test scores it was important to go beyond the aggregate reporting. For example, when looking at the scores for non-free/reduced lunch students as compared to DRG B, Greenwich was consistently outscored by other districts in Grade 3, but by Grade 5 and Grade 8, it had much better results and either was better or at the same level as the majority of the districts.
The board then discussed that perhaps the district needs to focus on what is happening prior to Grade 3. While almost all the children who come into the district have some sort of Pre-K experience, something seems to happening or not happening in the district compared to others.
Interim Superintendent Roger Lulow commented that “we had similar discussions 13 years ago about test results. Back then the decision was made to correct the problem by upgrading and developing more challenging curriculum aligned with state standards. That was the focus; we thought it would work by getting a curriculum that was challenging and interesting for kids at all levels. That has evolved over the last nine years. I observe there is less focus on curriculum now and more on instruction (i.e., TEPL). The philosophy has recently been around classroom teacher being the most important ingredient in the learning process. I believe both are important and both ingredients are here to do this right.”
One board member suggested getting back to basics however this elicited responses from board members Moriarity and Nancy Kail. Moriarity felt that “back to basics is a solution; let’s determine the problem and then find the solution. We need to look at causes and concerns.”
Kail followed on by asking “are we saying that performance on tests are of such importance that we deny access to other programs to underperforming children?"
She then questioned Lulow about when does the District decide to try a completely different approach. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity, so we need to get input on the time frame that it takes to resolve issues, especially long standing issues. When do you take a totally new tack?”
Lulow responded that it is a difficulty question to answer. “We need to give things adequate time," explained Lulow. “A number of things have been started but a year or two will not make major or significant jumps in scores. It is unwise to immediately stop if doesn’t work after two years but it is equally unwise to stay course for four or five years if no improvements are seen. Somewhere between the extremes is the answer; it will depend on the problem.”
In ending the discussion, Board member Natalie Queen brought the issue back to reality and away from a discussion merely about data and numbers.
She remarked on the demographic breakdown of data and stated “we should stop labeling kids based upon these demographics and simply say we have underperforming children whose needs must be addressed." Queen suggested that the district stops "thinking of
them as sub-groups and start thinking of them as individual children whose needs we are not meeting.”
When asked what he thought of the "summit" discussion, Chairman Anderson said he felt that it was “a nice, rich board discussion.”
Anderson feels that as a board, “We all desire stronger achievement levels and the board needs to set the proper policies and expectations. We'll be very interested in Dr. Lulow's takeaways after discussions with staff and continued development of the data analysis."