By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
There are a great many problems in the Washington, D.C. school system but when it comes to evaluating the academic growth of its students the system may be on the right track. In order to receive a waiver from the 100% pass rate demanded by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2014 the educational leaders in D.C. made some interesting and potentially productive changes. The most fundamental adjustment is the recognition that the task of successfully educating different student bodies can vary from school to school within a single district.
According to a recent article in the Washington Post one of the system’s primary changes is to have less focus on proficiency rates and more on growth:
“Schools are aiming for the achievement targets — or ‘annual measurable objectives,’ AMOs in edu-speak…They also receive an ‘accountability index score,’ generated via an algorithm that is supposed to reflect not just how high students score on tests, but how much they have progressed.”
In addition schools will be judged on improvement whether they are at the top or the bottom of the district.
“A common complaint about No Child Left Behind was that it focused only on proficiency rates, creating an incentive for schools to heap attention on kids who were right on the cusp of becoming proficient. Kids who were shoo-ins to pass state tests — or fail them — got less of their teachers’ time, critics said.
“Under the District’s new accountability system, schools get credit for kids who make strides, no matter where they start on the spectrum.”
Apparently the hope is that these changes will afford educational leaders a better opportunity to measure the actual depth of the academic problems at each school.
“Instead of just two categories of schools — “made AYP” and “didn’t make AYP” — there are now five categories: priority, focus, developing, rising and reward. Schools are put into a category based on their accountability index scores.
“Priority schools — which include both DCPS and charter schools — are those with the lowest overall performance and growth. They have to write a plan that shows how they’ll implement seven ‘turnaround principles,’ such as ensuring strong leadership and curriculum.
“Priority schools will also have to decide in the next year whether to adopt one of the federal government’s four ‘turnaround models,’ which include closing the school, replacing its principal and half the staff and restarting the school as a charter.
“According to the waiver application and officials with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, parents are supposed to be included in making that decision.”
One size does not fit all
More districts need to recognize that their schools may not have identical academic challenges. In 1997 as state mandated standardized tests were introduced in Virginia my school faced some daunting issues. The student body’s free or reduced lunch rate of 53% was by far the highest among the 24 other schools. The second highest was 36%; even more telling was the fact that the combined rate of the eight wealthiest schools was less than 53%. In addition the school had an equally skewed number of ELL students and mobility. It was not surprising that in the second year of testing the school had the district’s second lowest pass rate in Algebra 1.
In order to better serve the needs of our unique student body it was clear that following the same policies of the majority of the others schools would not work. A number of changes were implemented. Algebra 1 students were given more time to complete the curriculum. Special after school remediation programs were established. A unique course sequence was created for the most at-risk students. Breaking with the lockstep approach of the district produced stunning results. Within three years the Algebra 1 pass rates were among the top 33% in the system. The scores in Algebra 2 and Geometry also soared. The recognition that not all schools were alike and thus often had a different set of needs allowed a system’s poorest student body to perform at the same level of everyone else.
Hopefully, the schools in Washington D.C. will have a similar outcome. The recognition that success and failure cannot be measured by only one data point is a step in the right direction.