Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Syracuse, New York: Streamlining District Assessments

In 2014, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) created the Teaching is the Core grant to help school districts improve the quality of all local assessments, while eliminating or modifying those that do not contribute to teaching and learning. Throughout 2014-15, Education First, a national strategy and policy organization, supported Syracuse City School District (SCSD) to identify goals and priorities for assessment and to meaningfully engage stakeholders, including teachers and their union, principals, families and school board members. Together, they worked to find ways to streamline and minimize the battery of assessments being used, consider which assessments were most useful to educators and most reflective of district learning goals, and boost the capacity of teachers and parents to understand what a “high quality” assessment looks like.

In Syracuse, district leaders first identified every single assessment used by more than one teacher, measuring more than a week’s worth of instruction. Then, Education First and SCSD created a survey to inventory those school-level assessments – which identified 63 additional assessments beyond those required by the state or district for accountability purposes.

Next, the district and Education First assembled educator review teams in four subject areas and for English language learners to evaluate the quality of these assessments. In partnership with Achievement Network, a national nonprofit that supports school improvement and better use of data in Syracuse and around the nation, Education First devised a rubric based on the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) Criteria for Procuring and Evaluating High-Quality Assessment and aligned the rubric with five NYSED-required criteria: rigor, comparability, informs instruction, supports learning goals, and uses diverse assessment techniques. Using these reviews and ratings, SCSD decided what assessments would be streamlined, replaced or eliminated, what would be modified and what would be maintained.

After the reviews, teachers recommended that the majority of unit assessments be modified or eliminated, and that a series of math computation and early literacy assessments and two engineering assessments be eliminated. Also as a result of the process, the district created a new assessment framework and decided to only require two non-state summative assessments to be administered district-wide, which teachers recommended keeping. Schools were given discretion over all other assessment administration and the district issued messaging around strong assessment practice to support schools in making good decisions about what assessments to administer, when and why.

This image is a text box that reads: Header - a Focus on Streamlining, Syracuse City School District Assessment Framework and Belief Statements. Syracuse City School District (SCSD) built an assessment framework that outlined the goals of each type of assessment and how assessment fits into the district's overall instructional improvement strategy. SCSD also created a believe statement about the role of assessment in their overall district goals. Belief Statements: Assessments should be high-quality. We must make the most of the time students and teachers have together. Assessments must be aligned with rigorous standards and measure students' abilities to think critically, synthesize material from multiple sources, analyze probelms and justify responses. Assessments should be part of a coherent system. Assessments hsould complement each other in a way that defines a coherent system of measures. This requires balance of different assessment types staggered across a school year to holistically capture student performance and growth. Assessments that provide similar information on teaching and learning should be eliminated. Assessments should be meaningful. Assessments are critical to improving instructional practice int he classroom by arming stakeholders with the most important information. A robust assessment system is also empowering to students. Students should have access to assessment data so that they understand where they are in relationship to the goals they are setting for themselves. To best accomplish this, the results of assesssments should be timely, transparent, disaggregated, and easily accessible to all stakeholders so they can interpret and analyze results.

Source: Education First, Fewer and Better Local Assessments: A Toolkit for Educators.

Supporting Districts to Streamline Assessments

As a result of the work with teachers in Syracuse and informed by lessons learned from other school systems, Education First created a free/open source Toolkit to help schools, school districts and charter management organizations both streamline and improve the quality of testing. Fewer and Better Local Assessments: A Toolkit for Educators includes (1) a step-by-step Playbook for district leaders, which builds on extends the Student Assessment Inventory Process built by Achieve; (2) Local Assessment Screener for Educator Reviewers (LASER), which are teacher-friendly rubrics to evaluate low-stakes assessments, as well as teacher training materials; and (3) plug-and-play materials for school leaders that are available for download and are fully adaptable. By providing these tools, lessons and advice, Education First intends to give school systems a “leg up” on leading their own assessment review processes with significant stakeholder engagement.

To read more about the work in Syracuse and the resources provided by Education First, visit: http://education-first.com/library/publication/fewer-and-better-local-assessments/

 

Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Two students sit at a desk, working on notebooks with textbooks placed in front of them. The student on the right looks on as the student on the left is writing.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan). Following up on its commitment to be a part of the solution, the Department recently released guidance to States on how they can use federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to reduce the testing burden and improve the use of high-quality assessments so that educators and families can better understand student learning needs and help them make progress (read the letter to States).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. PROGRESS has highlighted work in Tennessee and Tulsa, OKIllinois, and Delaware.

Louisiana Department of Education – Supporting districts to use high-quality benchmark assessments.

In Louisiana, 90 percent of its 79 districts completed an audit of their local assessments in 2014 and identified the need to reduce unnecessary testing. For example, the audit found that, on average, third grade students were spending 25 to 34 school days a year taking local assessments. The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) is taking a number of steps to support districts in reducing unnecessary testing and improving the quality of their assessments. LDOE is working with five pilot districts to create model assessment systems, and is providing all districts with guidance on reducing unnecessary assessments, along with direct and individualized coaching. These efforts have reduced unnecessary testing in many districts; the State plans to conduct a second round of audits with districts in the coming months to identify additional areas for future support.

Stephen Zafirau of St. John Public Schools, said, “Our collaboration with the LDOE on our district assessment system has been invaluable. Through this project, we have gained insight by conducting focus groups and surveys with administrators, teachers, and students to learn how we can strengthen assessments and provide effective feedback in St. John the Baptist Parish. Many of our efforts leading into the next school year will focus on revising our assessment framework and effectively communicating to school administrators and classroom teachers the purpose and value of formative and summative assessments. We are currently planning to focus district professional development efforts on how our assessments can be used to set goals, plan instruction, and address student instructional needs.”

LDOE is leading an online review of local assessments to provide districts with information on the extent to which their tests are aligned with state content standards, in order to help districts improve the quality of these locally administered assessments. Each local school system can then use this information to determine if an assessment is appropriate to meet the needs of their students.

Jeannie Cormier, Supervisor of Middle Schools / Accountability Contact  in Vermilion Parish, believes that assessments should be used as tools to track student growth and provide information that can be used to modify instruction and improve student learning. She stated, “The focus on state, district, and school assessments helped clarify the purpose and goals of assessments for our district. I now envision a system in which all stakeholders have their eyes on the same-goals. Teacher evaluation targets for student growth, principal targets for school success, and student goals must be aligned. In addition, the assessment process and products will have more use and be more effective if they are transparent to all stakeholders.”

The process that LDOE uses to review local assessments is the same process that was established in 2012 to support districts in selecting instructional materials (e.g., textbooks, workbooks, curriculum guides) that are best for their local communities.

“We believe that the state can and should play a role in providing unbiased, rigorous reviews that put relationships aside and simply identify quality,” said Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White. “But reviews aren’t enough. Locals need to both be savvy users of these reviews and they need to easily purchase the best tools. Given this, we spend a lot of time helping locals see the connections between our reviews and what is demanded in our standards and assessments. We also provide state contracts for quality tools to support ease of purchasing.” In addition to selecting materials reviewed by the LDOE review process, districts can also use their own local review process or adopt a combination of state-reviewed materials and locally-reviewed materials.

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Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Acting Assistant Secretary King is seated on the floor of a classroom with a class of elementary school students. The teacher is sitting on a chair at the front of the room, speaking to the class. One student raises her hand to speak.

Acting Assistant Secretary King sits in on a class at Kuumba Academy in Wilmington, DE. Photo Credit: Delaware Department of Education.

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan). Following up on its commitment to be a part of the solution, the Department recently released guidance to States on how they can use federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to reduce the testing burden and improve the use of high-quality assessments so that educators and families can better understand student learning needs and help them make progress (read the letter to States).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. PROGRESS has highlighted work in Tennessee and Tulsa, OK, and in Illinois.

Delaware Committed to Finding a Balance

In a recent visit to Wilmington, Delaware, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education King spoke with State leaders, superintendents, and educators about testing, the role it plays in teaching and learning, and how quality assessments can be used to improve academic achievement. “It’s important for us to know where we have achievement gaps. It is important for us to know where our students are making progress,” King said. “But there are places around the country where there is too much assessment and the assessments are not the quality we want.”

Congressman John Carney, Dr. Mark Phelps (Head of School at Academia Antonia Alonso), Acting Secretary John King, and Governor Jack Markell (listed left to right) pose for a photo with students at Academia Antonia Alonso in Wilmington, DE.

Congressman John Carney, Dr. Mark Phelps (Head of School at Academia Antonia Alonso), Acting Secretary John King, and Governor Jack Markell (listed left to right) pose for a photo with students at Academia Antonia Alonso in Wilmington, DE. Photo Credit: Delaware Department of Education.

During his visit, Acting Secretary King praised Delaware for recognizing the critical importance of high-quality assessments in providing information to educators, parents, and students, and for understanding their value in ensuring equity for all students. He also noted that, oftentimes, there are unnecessary or overly burdensome assessments that don’t provide the information that educators need to support students. In Delaware, districts are working together to reduce the testing burden and improve the quality of necessary tests that provide information on students’ learning growth.

All district and charter schools in Delaware were required to complete an inventory of their assessments and submit their findings to the Delaware Department of Education by December 31, 2015. A committee of teachers, administrators, and parents from across the State is reviewing the assessment inventories, recommendations, and impact information. The Delaware Department of Education will release a report summarizing the information later this year.

The State provided funds to help districts and charter schools conduct the assessment inventories. A total of $325,597 was provided to the 11 districts that requested financial assistance. The individual grants ranged from $10,000 to $60,000 based on their student populations.

“Our educators, our students, and their parents all deserve the benefits of effective assessments that show when students are excelling and when they need extra support,” said Governor Jack Markell. “At the same time, tests that don’t add meaningfully to the learning process mean less time for students to receive the instruction and support they need. We are committed to finding the right balance, and this initiative is an important part of that process.”

Brandywine School District Focuses on Quality

Brandywine school district (located near Wilmington, DE) conducted its assessment inventory supported by a grant from the state. At the time, there were very few common assessments mandated by the district. Instead, many schools and teachers created assessments on their own without district involvement. Brandywine’s assessment inventory found that many of these assessments were not aligned to the State’s standards, did not measure the depth of knowledge required by these new standards, nor included a variety of item types. In particular, there was limited use of performance tasks that measure students’ critical thinking skills. The district is working with its teachers and school administrators to review, revise, and in some cases, eliminate these assessments. In their place will be high-quality formative assessments, tests used throughout the year by educators to assess whether students are learning content, aligned to the State’s standards that will be given throughout the district. For example, the district will require a common writing test as part of the secondary English language assessment.

“We recognized the need to increase the use of formative assessments to improve student learning and to involve students in monitoring their achievement,” said Julie Schmidt, Supervisor of Assessment and Accountability in the Brandywine School District. “Our focus is on quality, and not just on reducing the number of assessments. We want high-quality, instructionally-relevant assessments that provide information to teachers, parents, and students in a timely manner,” said Cary Riches, Director of Curriculum and Instruction.

During this school year, teachers are working together to identify and pilot at least one performance task per grade level in all the core content areas. “Bringing teachers together to review and score work samples from our classrooms has been very helpful,” said Riches. “It has helped us take ownership of the assessments and given us time to discuss how to improve instruction to meet the needs of our students.”

The district chose to use some of its grant funds to hire an outside assessment expert to review district assessments. “It was very helpful to have an outside person who could help us look at our assessments objectively; it expanded our thinking about assessments and pushed us to think creatively,” said Schmidt. Based on the results from the assessment inventory, the district developed a five-year plan to develop a balanced assessment system, which includes a clear vision and guiding principles to follow during implementation of the plan.

“In addition to increasing assessment literacy amongst our teachers and administrators, it has also helped us improve and expand our learning management system so that teachers have timely access to information about student performance and resources, such as test item banks,” noted Riches. “The assessment inventory process has been a catalyst for a number of changes in our district.”

Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

A student writes on a work sheet with a pencil while a teacher looks on.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan). Following up on its commitment to be a part of the solution, the Department recently released guidance to States on how they can use federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to reduce the testing burden and improve the use of high-quality assessments so that educators and families can better understand student learning needs and help them make progress (read the letter to States).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. Last month, PROGRESS highlighted work in Tennessee and Tulsa, OK. Below are examples from Illinois, including a spotlight on Bensenville School District 2.

The Illinois State Board of Education completed a pilot study in August 2015 to determine which local assessments were providing valuable information to educators in order to increase student achievement, and which assessments could be eliminated.  Three districts (Urbana School District 116, West Aurora School District 129, and Bensenville School District 2) collected data from administrators, teachers, and parents about local assessment use and quality using an adaption of the “The Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts” developed by Achieve (www.achieve.org/assessmentinventory). All three districts concluded that the inventory process was valuable and plan to evaluate their local assessment systems annually.

“The involvement of school board members and parents in this process was essential,” said Kay Dugan, Assistant Superintendent for Learning in Bensenville School District 2. “They The image is a quote from Kay Dugan, the Assistant Superintendent for Learning at Bensenville School District 2. It reads, "The involvement of school board members and parents in this process was essential."provided valuable perspectives and kept us focused on one essential question — Does the assessment provide accurate and valuable information to positively impact student achievement?” As a result of their work, the committee recommended eliminating off-the- shelf assessments in reading and math to students in grades 2 through 8. Eliminating these district assessments (which were administered twice a year in the 2014-15 school year) allowed teachers to reclaim approximately 12 hours of instructional time per year.

Jean Korder, Urbana School District 116 director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment said, “We chose to participate in the pilot to address our ongoing need to increase assessment literacy and the use of high-quality assessments to make informed instructional decisions to better meet the needs of all students.” As a result of their assessment inventory work, the district eliminated benchmark tests in reading and math (provided from an outside vendor). The inventory process found that the assessments were not aligned to the districts’ current standards and that teachers were not using the results of these assessments to improve classroom instruction. Eliminating these assessments allowed the district to reclaim 270 minutes of instructional time per year.

The West Aurora School district 129 Leadership Team stated, “As a district, we wanted to ensure that our system of assessment made sense to our students, staff, and parents.  Our goal for this process was to have quality assessments that provide us with the information needed to accurately assess the needs of our students and our programs.”

In addition to obtaining valuable information about local standardized assessments given each month, broken down by grade level and student subgroup, the inventory process provided information about professional development needs and engaged educators in thinking critically about assessments and the use of assessment information. The Illinois State Board of Education has made training on the assessment inventory process available statewide through their Statewide System of Supports, which offers professional learning/development opportunities to all schools in Illinois at little to no cost.

In Bensenville, there were benefits beyond reducing time spent on testing and test preparation. Another major outcome of the pilot study was improving assessment literacy among teachers and administrators, which led to the district’s current efforts to develop a “standards-based report card.” The district formed a team of teachers, school board members, and parents to revamp the existing report card with the goal of implementing the new report card in the 2015-16 school year. “The focus on developing a standards-based report card would not have happened without our involvement in the assessment inventory. Completing the assessment inventory increased our assessment literacy and changed the conversation about assessments; it helped us develop a common vocabulary and come to agreement on what we mean by terms such as “mastery” and “proficiency,” which aligns with our work around teacher evaluation and student-growth metrics.”

For additional information, please visit:

www. isbe.net/assessment/pdfs/bal-asmt/news/inventory-pilot-concludes-150825.pdf

www. isbe.net/assessment/pdfs/bal-asmt-inventory-tool-150423.pdf

Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. Below are a set of examples, the first of a series that will be highlighted on PROGRESS.

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Louisiana Relying on Teacher-to-Teacher Professional Development to Change Instruction

Teacher leaders in grades K-2 gathered in July 2014 to learn new ways to teach English language arts content and design lessons for the 2014-2015 school year. Photo Credit: Louisiana Department of Education

Teacher leaders in grades K-2 gathered in July 2014 to learn new ways to teach English language arts content and design lessons for the 2014-2015 school year. Photo Credit: Louisiana Department of Education

Teachers are getting higher quality support, coaching and professional learning opportunities to help their students succeed.

Louisiana’s Teacher Leader program is drawing rave reviews from teachers for providing them with better resources, more meaningful peer-to-peer professional development and a stronger connection between educators serving in schools and policymakers serving in Baton Rouge.

First launched in fall 2012 with 50 teachers and funding from Race to the Top, the program has now grown to include more than 4,000 educators—generally two from every school in the State. The State holds one multi-day, statewide training session for teacher leaders each summer and regional meetings throughout the year.

In these sessions, teacher leaders receive in-depth training in subjects such as mathematics, English language arts, science, and social studies and in skills such as implementing college- and career-readiness standards and creating formative assessments.

The teacher leaders then redeliver that training to colleagues in their communities to help them improve instruction in their classrooms. The teacher leaders also offer feedback to State policymakers on the classroom resources teachers need and some of the more experienced teacher leaders serve on committees that help create and review those resources.

Districts vary in how they select teacher leaders. In some cases teachers apply to participate, and in others they are tapped for the role based on their leadership and teaching skills.

Teacher leaders are recognized for their leadership and can also receive a financial boost. Some districts pay them more because the training they do is in addition to working as full-time teachers. The State also provides small stipends to those who help create curricular resources that teachers can use to plan and deliver lessons linked to the new college- and career-ready standards.

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Florida Formative Assessments Help Teachers Target Students’ Needs

Students work in groups based on their formative assessment results. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.

Students work in groups based on their formative assessment results. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.

Teachers are given powerful tools to help students master rigorous college- and career-ready standards.

Bette Smith, an Algebra I teacher at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, does a lot of running during the school day to address the learning needs of each of her students. But with the help of a new tool called the Mathematics Formative Assessment System (MFAS), her running around is targeted and she is able to use her time more efficiently and effectively. “I am able to see who needs attention [and] who needs me to tell them they are on the right track,” she says. “It has totally cut down on the running and gives students more time with me.”

MFAS, which is free and available online, includes more than 1,300 tasks and problems that teachers can use to gauge students’ knowledge of the State mathematics standards. With each task comes a rubric that helps teachers interpret students’ responses to identify their needs and then customize their instruction.

Funded by a Race to the Top grant in 2011, the project originally focused on grades K–3, but it proved so valuable that districts asked the Florida Department of Education to expand MFAS. The tool now includes grades 4–8, Algebra I and Geometry.

Finding Out What Students Know

The tasks and problems are brief and are designed to be used by teachers to group students according to their needs. The rubrics are detailed and include examples of student work correlated with typical misconceptions or errors. That helps teachers understand students’ thinking and design lessons accordingly.

“Sometimes just a good thought-provoking question will send students to the next level or to mastery of the standard,” Smith says.

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Districts Give High Marks to Louisiana’s Regional Support Teams

Supporters are helping educators implement rigorous college- and career-ready standards.

When the Louisiana Department of Education announced three years ago that it would hire instructional coaches and other experts to support schools and districts across the State, some educators were a little skeptical. Traditionally, the role of State education agencies has been to monitor spending and enforce regulations.

“Some were thinking, ‘Well they’re just here to oversee us, to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,’” recalls Don Coker, assistant superintendent and personnel director of Ouachita Parish schools. “Well, as it turned out, that first year was good. The second year was better. And this year, they are like a part of us.”This graphic has a quote from Dan Coker, assistant superintendent and personnel director of Ouachita Parish Schools: “That first year was good. The second year was better. And this year, they are like a part of us.”

The State has used Race to the Top funds to hire the coaches and other support staff, who are organized into four
regional teams. Each team has a handful of coaches whose job it is to help teachers and principals analyze student and other data, create strategic plans and set goals, implement college- and career-ready standards, vet classroom resources and institute a new teacher evaluation system. Many of the coaches taught previously in the communities that they are now serving, inspiring trust from district leaders and educators. The coaches typically spend about four days a week in and out of schools with some joking that their cars are their offices. One day a week often is reserved to meet with other members of their regional team.

Melissa Stilley, who leads a regional network in south Louisiana and previously ran one in the northeastern part of the State, manages a team of coaches who are in and out of schools daily. Her team helps principals conduct good classroom observations, which are a key element of the State’s teacher evaluation system. The coaches observe classrooms alongside district leaders, not to evaluate the teachers but to find out afterwards what the principals think was significant about what they saw.

“After the observation, we’ll lead a conversation with the principal, in which we’ll ask, ‘What feedback would you give the teacher?’” Stilley said. The coach would lead the principal to think about feedback related to the rigor of the lesson, the content covered and whether the teacher used formative assessments aligned with end-of-year tests. In addition to helping principals conduct strong observations, the coaches guide them in how to provide meaningful feedback to teachers.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Rigorous Expectations in a Supportive Environment University High School, Fresno, California

University High School Building

University High School, Fresno, California.
Credit: University High School Permission: University High School

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

University High School in Fresno, California, is a grade 9–12 college-prep public charter school. The school focuses on liberal arts and music and is located on the campus of California State University, Fresno. The high school has about 500 students, and all of them graduate having earned as much as two years of college credits. The school draws students who want a college-prep education from 35 zip codes in 9 cities.

In school year (SY) 2012–2013, the school earned the seventh best score in the State on the California Academic Performance Index. Ninety-seven percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the State test.

Q. What strategies do you use to promote high performance among students?

James Bushman, principal: It starts with our belief that kids can do rigorous work. We are a college prep school, requiring students to take four years of English, with Advanced Placement (AP) both junior and senior years; three to four years of a foreign language, including two years of Latin; four years of science, including college courses in biology and environmental science; and four years of math, including Algebra II freshman year and AP Calculus and Statistics in junior or senior years. We also require students to take music all four years. And all of our students graduate having taken at least one year of college courses.

We also have a required elective session at the end of each semester. These elective sessions vary from seven to ten days but all students sign up for one or two intensive classes during this period. These classes provide students a unique experience separate from the academic work they take during the regular semester.

Because all students are required to take Algebra II freshman year, everyone must have passed Algebra I with a grade of B or better to be admitted. But Algebra I preparation varies a lot depending on what school our students attended previously, so we are looking at ways to make learning more personalized and student centered.

Jim Torrance, teacher: Another thing we do to promote high performance is our 48 Books initiative, which has contributed to our success in English language arts. We require continuous reading outside of class every year of high school, so we buy a book a month and give a copy to every student for all four years. All of these books are integrated into the English language arts classroom. It becomes a shared library, and we choose books that help them become better adults.

It’s amazing what students can do when they have support and everybody is having the same experience. In my English class, everybody turns in every paper. We aren’t forcing students to be in class.

Bushman: We have an obligation to make sure no child is left behind.

One strategy we use is to focus on character education. Character really does matter. Students treat each other better and are more motivated than in a traditional high school. Five years ago, we wrote a code of character with three pillars: being understanding, being honorable and being studious. It was a joint effort with students and the faculty.

We do a lot to promote the code of character, even before students come to the school. On orientation day, we discuss it and teachers talk about it in the first week. We do surveys and teachers model behavior. You can push hard, but students need a lot of nurturing, and teachers have to respect the students. We have a teaching staff that cares and creates an environment of acceptance and tolerance.

Q. What other strategies do you use?

 Bushman: For the past five years, we also have had students fill out feedback forms for each class they take, which has made our teachers much more responsive. Students will say things to teachers such as “no more pop quizzes, just be clear about expectations.” And teachers are responding to this feedback—the students don’t say the same things about teachers that they did five years ago. In fact, we used to do the survey at the end of the year, but now we do it in December, so we can incorporate the feedback from students into classrooms right away.

 One of things we are proudest of is the environment we created at our school. Parents love it, and students drive an hour each way every day to get there because they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Teachers say it is the best place to work because they have the autonomy to teach what they want and students love to learn.

You can learn more about University High School’s efforts and success at the here.

Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Accurate observations pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, and specific feedback helps teachers improve instruction, leading to increases in student learning.

At the end of school year (SY) 2011–2012, the principal at Erin Elementary School in Houston County, Tennessee judged nearly 90 percent of the school’s teachers to be exceeding expectations based on observations of their classroom performances.

But, according to results of the State’s assessment system, their students weren’t doing nearly so well.

How could this be?

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) discovered the mismatch at Erin and many others when it analyzed results from the first year schools used a new teacher evaluation system that includes multiple measures such as test scores, observations, student surveys and other elements to help identify teachers strengths and areas for improvement.

Many States have introduced such evaluation systems over the past several years, responding to strong evidence that teaching is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. However, if principals cannot accurately discern differences in the performances they observe, they cannot provide teachers constructive feedback on how they can do more to increase student achievement.

After its analysis, the State identified schools with the biggest gaps between principals’ observations and student achievement. It then hired eight coaches over the next two years to work with the principals at 116 schools.

Improved Feedback, Improved Teaching, Improved Student Achievement

After the coaching, principals were able to give teachers better feedback, teachers’ performance improved and student learning accelerated, according to a State analysis. Luke Kohlmoos, the former director of evaluation at the TDOE, said observation scores changed immediately after coaching. But, he said, that was not the goal.

“The change is what happens after you score accurately,” Kohlmoos said.  “This is about feedback and development of teachers; it’s not necessarily about the number of teachers getting high observation scores.”

Kohlmoos said the coaching “was way more effective than anticipated” in terms of the improvements in teaching that resulted.

Student achievement across the schools that received coaching in the first year rose, on average, faster than the gains made statewide. The same thing happened during the second year of coaching at other schools in SY 2013-2014. “We are very optimistic that these gains are real,” Kohlmoos said.

But he said the State won’t know for sure until the results have been reviewed independently. He said the State is doing a formal evaluation to determine if the changes in student achievement were due to the coaching, resulted from other factors or occurred by chance.

Meanwhile, the State is continuing the coaching in SY 2014–2015, using a combination of State funds and foundation grants. For the current school year, in addition to working with schools with large disparities in ratings, coaches will work with principals’ supervisors to help them.

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