(Today’s stories are the first of two parts on gaps within school districts. Part 2 runs next week)
GRAND RAPIDS – Bridget Cheney said she believes in data. As principal at Congress Elementary School in Grand Rapids, she uses test scores to assess how much is being learned by the low-income students that crowd her classrooms. Data helped her realize that some of the words used on standardized tests were unfamiliar to her students, which led Congress to focus more on test vocabulary.
But she also contends those data points can obscure as much as illuminate. For example, student test scores in reading on the state standardized test (the MEAP) seemed to indicate that her school’s rock star fourth-grade teacher didn’t do a good job of instruction one recent year, and that Congress’ typically wonderful third-grade teacher performed poorly a year earlier. The teachers were the same, and so was curriculum and how that curriculum was taught. What went wrong?
What those raw numbers didn’t capture, according to Cheney, is that there were an unusually large percentage of kids for whom English wasn’t their native language in those classrooms those years. English language learners struggle, particularly in reading, in early grades.
“That blunt instrument (standardized test scores) doesn’t pick up on the nuances in the classroom,” Cheney said.
MORE COVERAGE: “One Dearborn school soars. Another stumbles. Why?”
Data is integral to Michigan’s efforts to improve student learning. Reading proficiency in Michigan has been declining, while it has been increasing in most other states. Michigan now ranks 40th among the 50 states in third-grade reading proficiency.
A workgroup convened by Gov. Rick Snyder recently released a report laying out a series of recommendations for improving early literacy, including early intervention for struggling readers and more literacy training for teachers.
The report also urged the collection of accurate data on “how our students and schools are performing.”
In some ways, Grand Rapids is a test case for early literacy efforts. The district has a central administration that is aggressively addressing achievement gaps, with a district-level student growth test given to students above and beyond the state test. Yet massive differences in performance among schools still exist in Grand Rapids and other Michigan school districts, even among schools with similar rates of poverty.
At Congress for example, the percentage of students scoring at proficiency level or higher is often twice as high as at Dickinson Elementary less than three miles away, even though the schools serve similar levels of low-income students.
Some lessons emerge from these difference, such as the importance of stability and leadership within the school. But the performance differences between schools in a single district can also illustrate the limits of Michigan’s current testing and ranking regimen. It’s a system that appears to mean well, but can miss many of the complexities some schools must deal with in their classrooms.
Big gaps, with many causes
Grand Rapids faces bigger challenges than most Michigan school districts. More than 50 percent of its students don’t speak English at home as their primary language or they have a special education designation. The district enrolls about 1,200 homeless children, or more than 7 percent of its students. About 36 percent of students are Hispanic, 33 percent African-American and 31 percent white. In many Grand Rapids schools, nine out of 10 students are low-income.
Yet even among schools filled with low-income students, test scores vary greatly. In Bridge Magazine’s Academic State Champs ranking of schools released this year, which adjusts test scores for poverty level, five Grand Rapids elementary school's were in the top quarter of all Michigan schools, and four were in the bottom quarter.
At Burton Elementary, for example, just 39 percent of fourth-graders were reading at a level of proficiency or higher in 2013-14 (Because the recently dropped MEAP tests were taken in the October just a few weeks after school started, fourth-grade tests offer a better clue about third-grade proficiency than third-grade scores.), a rate lower than most Grand Rapids elementary schools.
But more than three out of four Burton students do not speak English as their primary language in their homes, a factor that is not taken into account in state school rankings.
“Our building is always going to be at the bottom of the barrel, and that’s hard,” said Burton fourth-grade teacher Ena St Germain. “Many (Burton) parents are first generation in the U.S. and some are illiterate. Some of my parents can’t even count. I have parents putting in 12-hour days working. How is that 9-year-old going to be able to read at the same level as other kids?”
Across town, at the C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, the students are native English speakers, and test scores are higher. “One hundred percent of my kids showed growth in reading, but that growth didn’t make them all proficient at the state cut off (score),” said Frost second-grade teacher Karla Finn.
Some Grand Rapids elementaries have a large population of homeless kids, which represent a whole different degree of poverty from those who merely qualify for reduced lunch prices. The percentage of students with child protective custody orders and the number of schools a child has attended in a school year are additional factors that can depress student learning, Burton teacher St Germain said.
The challenges faced by children, which vary wildly between schools and can impact the gap in test scores between two seemingly similar schools, are “overwhelming,” said Sara Cinadr, a third-grade teacher at the Southwest Community Campus School, a bilingual elementary in Grand Rapids. Even something as simple as the temperature in a classroom can have a major impact.
“When my class took the MAP (the Measures of Academic Progress exam, used by Grand Rapids schools to measure student growth) it was 80 degrees,” Cinadr said. “It was hot and everyone was really miserable, and I had several students who did worse than I know they could. When I saw my students’ scores on the MAP, I literally cried.”
Minding the test score gap
Congress Elementary is an old building in a working-class neighborhood of southeast Grand Rapids. About 42 percent of students are Hispanic, 33 percent are African-American; 92 percent are economically disadvantaged.
On a recent day, the school’s third graders lined up outside their classroom. A few waved and said hello to Principal Cheney as they headed down a flight of stairs to the school’s computer lab, where they would take the M-STEP – the 2014-15 version of Michigan’s standardized test which was given for the first time this spring.
How they fare on the test won’t affect the students, but could have a huge impact on their teachers, their school and their school district.
When Cheney became principal at Congress five years ago, the school’s raw test scores were in the bottom 2 percent in the state. Last year, MEAP scores placed the school in the 14th percentile. That’s still low, but academic achievement tends to rise and fall with income. With more than 90 percent of its students qualifying for a free or reduced-priced lunch, Congress is actually performing better than its peer low-income schools in the state. In Bridge’s Academic State Champs, which adjusts student achievement for poverty, Congress ranks in the top quarter of all elementary schools in the state.
One boost for the school was getting more kids into preschool, with the expansion of the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program. A second was the realization that some of the words used in the instructions of standardized tests weren’t in the vocabulary of the school’s students.
“Sometimes on tests they’ll use the words like ‘selection’ or ‘passage’ or ‘paragraph,’” Cheney said. “If a child has only heard the word “story” referenced, they don’t know what ‘passage’ means.
Cheney hesitates to suggest the efforts at Congress would work at other schools.
“I am very much a data person,” Cheney said. “But I am not always black and white. Some of the nuances are missed with data. If you haven’t been in the shoes of an administrator or a teacher or a parent in a school that struggles to meet proficiencies, it is very hard to understand what some of the nuances or struggles are.”
At Congress, students struggle with early literacy skills. Cheney notes that some of that is due to factors outside the the school’s control. “Our parents are working two and three jobs,” Cheney said. “In the homes of our Hispanic students, the parents are typically not bi-literate, so while the kids speak some English, they’ve not been exposed to written English.”
“Do I come to work and want all the children to not struggle in their home life? Absolutely. Do I think I can change all of that? No,” Cheney said. “You’re not going to eradicate every hurdle children have when they come to school.”
Moving the needle
One approach that does pay dividends is staff stability, said Rick Noel, executive director of elementary schools and early childhood education for Grand Rapids schools.
Administrator and teacher churn “is a horrendous thing” for a school,” Noel said. “Historically, if you have a school that is a difficult place to work, people didn’t want to stay there for long, so you always had that churn going on.”
That lack of stability shows up in test scores. Dickinson Elementary has had three different administrators in three years, and has some of the lowest reading proficiency scores in the district. Cheney has been the principal for five years at Congress, a building where test scores are rising. Palmer Elementary, with a stable teaching staff and longtime principal Angela Cook, is another school with scores above expectations for its student population.
“Consistency is extremely important,” Cheney said. “You know what’s coming. You know what to expect. You know what to do and when to do it. When you’re constantly starting over, you’re taking two steps backward.”
Teresa Weatherall Neal, who was named superintendent of the 17,000-student district in 2012, is pushing for increased stability in the schools by urging principals and teachers to stay in their buildings.
“Our superintendent now just doesn’t believe in moving people,” said Carolyn Evans, deputy superintendent of curriculum and learning for the district. “She believes in getting the right people, empowering those people as much as possible to pick their team.
“I think that makes sense,” Evans said. “Upsetting the applecart is not always the answer. For us, we needed to settle the system.”
Despite that goal, the district will be losing two admired elementary school principals next year. Cheney is moving to a central administration position, and Palmer Elementary’s Cook is leaving her post for health reasons. Finding high-quality replacements is vital, Evans said.
This year, the district created a rigorous hiring process for principals that includes candidate feedback from parents, teachers and students, as well as an exhaustive interview process.
“Leadership is so important in our buildings,” Evans said. “We don’t have the luxury of giving principals five years to become acclimated. They need to hit the ground running.”