By Madelynn Coldiron
“It really hit our teachers hard and they felt like, ‘We can’t be that. That’s not us. That’s not our school.’”
–Keith Haynes, principal of Cloverport Independent Elementary School
“We wanted to come up so bad. We were at the bottom. We were like, ‘We are better than that. Our kids are better than that.’”
–Amy Sperry, fourth-grade teacher at Boyd County’s Catlettsburg Elementary
These two educators in districts at opposite ends of the state used nearly identical phrases to describe the response after their schools received their 2012 state assessment results, landing both in single-digit percentiles.
A year later, there was rejoicing at both schools.
PHOTO: Catlettsburg Elementary fourth-grader Yasmeen Bashadi checks off her progress in the skills listed on her self-assessment form.
Cloverport Independent Elementary in Breckinridge County and Catlettsburg Elementary in the Boyd County school district were among the 10 schools that posted the biggest gains in 2013 testing, with Cloverport racking up a 23.7-point gain and Catlettsburg jumping 19.5 points in just one year.
Cloverport’s Haynes – who doesn’t take credit for the improvement because he is new to the job this year – said the school’s main issue during that first year of the state’s new testing system was that teaching was not fully aligned with the new Kentucky Core Academic Standards.
With the poor showing, the push was on to create that alignment and make sure students were mastering those skills, he said.
“And really I think that’s what made the biggest difference,” Haynes said. “It was just fully implementing the common core standards and making sure that our curriculum aligned with them, and knowing where every kid is.”
More formalized professional learning communities shored up this effort. The school had used what he called “quasi” professional learning communities before this, but last year they became “imperative,” and met weekly, he said.
“We sat down and talked about what we were covering,” said fifth-grade teacher Dianne Tindle. “I was in the intermediate PLC and we would meet with the primary PLC to make sure we were all aligning everything to make sure nothing was being left out that needed to be taught.”
There was no “magic bullet” to the school’s leap in accountability score, she added. “It was not that one thing. It was making sure you were meeting
each child’s needs and then challenging them to go beyond that so when test time came along, they would be ready for that challenge.”
To better prepare their students for state testing, Tindle said teachers set goals with students and gave practice tests in the same format, using the same time constraints to familiarize them with the process.
At Catlettsburg Elementary, one key strategy was to set aside an hour and a half every afternoon for interventions, involving every student in every classroom, with assistance based on analyzing individual data.
“We went up with every area, but we made the most in growth – that’s where the biggest bang for our buck was and I truly believe that it was because of the interventions we did every afternoon with the students,” Principal Marci Prater said.
The Boyd County school also used morning and after-school tutoring for more individualized instruction, and an assessment team that met monthly to review data from third, fourth and fifth grades, including special education. “We all meet and discuss strategies that are working, how we can improve on that,” Prater said.
“The individualized instruction was it for us,” fourth-grade teacher Amy Sperry said. “Those kids knew where they were and where they needed to go. There was a clear expectation between the student and the teacher.”
The emphasis on growth at all levels was celebrated throughout the year, said fifth-grade teacher Lisa Wiler.
“We had to come to a point where we realized we were celebrating growth, we were celebrating progress, not just distinguished or proficient,” Wiler said “We still strived for proficient and distinguished but we focused on the growth factor: were you growing, were you learning? And the kids knew that.”
The Catlettsburg school also got a bump from its combined fourth- and fifth-grade class of gifted students. And it incorporates college and career readiness across all subject areas.
One strategy both schools used was to identify students who were “on the bubble,” or close to advancing to the next level – novice to apprentice or apprentice to proficient, for example, and target them for improvement, thereby raising the schools’ scores.
Haynes said Cloverport used Measures of Academic Progress formative testing and other assessment results to identify students “who just needed that little extra push.” Teachers tailored instruction for individual students or small groups in 20-30 minute stretches during the school day.
At Catlettsburg, certified staff were responsible for working individually with these “on the bubble” students at least once a week during their planning period or before or after school, using math and reading strategies aligned to the common core, Prater said.
As for addressing achievement gaps among student subgroups, Haynes said Cloverport “started working a lot harder” with its special-needs students to improve their performance. Prater’s school did the same.
Both schools are also involving primary grade students in their strategies, even though state testing does not begin until third grade. At Catlettsburg, the work with individual teachers and the intervention period in the afternoon included students as young as kindergartners. Prater said this made the primary teachers “feel like they were able to have an impact on test scores, finally.”
“This is something I think people had to kind of get their minds wrapped around, that the common core is so essential that they master the skills from the previous grade level before moving on,” Haynes said. “Yes, kindergarten, first grade they don’t test, but what goes on there is absolutely essential to a student’s success in third, fourth, fifth grade down the road.”