Which Quartile Should We Focus On?
We received a question from a high school administrator who asked which group of students the school should focus on in order to improve the school’s achievement on the high-stakes tests administered by the state. He wrote, "We have received conflicting information about which levels to give the most attention. For example, should we concentrate more of our efforts on students moving from far below basic to below basic, from below basic to basic, or from basic to proficient?" We know that many schools are attempting to determine the best strategies for improving achievement on state tests, and so the question is not unique to this school.
Here is my response:
I received your question about which quartile you should focus on in your efforts to improve student achievement on the state tests your students must take. The answer is, you must focus on each and every student who demonstrates he or she is not learning. How you respond will be different, but your goal should be to give any student who struggles additional time and support for learning in a way that is timely, directive, and systematic.
For example, what is your plan for the students who are far below basic? At our high school, we adjusted their schedule so that they would have a double dose of language arts, with one period devoted to intensive reading instruction. We also built at least one hour per day into their schedule for intensive small-group instruction or individualized tutoring, even if the tutoring came from a member of the National Honor Society who was fulfilling a service requirement. Our plan was that by the end of two years, we would have the student achieving at grade level.
That didn’t mean we were inattentive to other students who were struggling to grasp a skill or concept in a particular course. Our goal was to monitor each student’s learning on a timely basis (every three weeks), and as soon as the student experienced difficulty that put him or her in danger of failing, we required the student to devote extra time to learning the concept in a way that never removed the student from new, direct instruction in the regular classroom. Again, this meant we had to create a schedule that gave us access to kids during the school day who needed extra support.
Your commitment must be to help all kids learn at the highest levels. You don’t pick and choose. Education is not a zero sum game. Helping one group of students learn does not take learning away from other students. A rising tide raises all boats. In our latest book, Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap, we looked at student achievement in 38 different schools that were using the PLC process (including a purposeful, systematic plan for intervention for any student who struggled). In every case, student achievement rose dramatically in each quartile. Students who had failed to demonstrate proficiency in the past became proficient. Students who were proficient in the past became advanced proficient.
Your question seems to suggest you are attempting to beat the state test, to game the system. That is very understandable given the emphasis put on state testing. But I encourage you to take another approach. Embrace the idea that in your school, collaborative teams of teachers will work together to ensure clarity on what students must learn, unit by unit, in each course taught. Teams will monitor each student’s learning on a regular and timely basis through a series of team-developed common formative assessments. Members of teams will use the results to inform and improve their own teaching by learning from one another. Finally, use the results from those assessments to provide any student who is struggling with additional time and support for learning, in a way that that is timely, directive (not invitational), and systematic (a schoolwide plan of intervention, rather than leaving the problem for each teacher to address). If you work at this approach, state test scores will take care of themselves.