What’s more important than rocking the API

Three in 10 Oakland students are learning English, and this group of students made big strides in their test scores this spring. Monica Navarro, a third-grade bilingual teacher at Allendale Elementary School (which made a 63-point jump on the state’s Academic Performance Index and met all of its NCLB goals), describes her reaction to the numbers — and tells us what, in her view, is even more important. -Katy

So I was asked by Katy to write about my experience — as a teacher of English learners — to reflect on our test scores going up, or how I might have seen growth and change in my own students that reflect the rise in scores in my own class, or in the school as a whole. It’s been difficult for me to actually sit down and put into writing the many mini-reflections I’ve had over the past year, or even really pinpoint what it was that I wanted to write about.

Then at a staff meeting today, the principal reminded us of the OUSD press advisory listing Allendale as one of the schools that made huge API gains, particularly with English learners. He commended particular teachers whose students made significant improvements in both English and math — and cited my class, which made a 12 percent increase in math and 7 percent increase in English. It was nice to be appreciated and, of course, thrilling that we might actually get out of Program Improvement next year. I actually started to pretend screaming I was so excited.

I have to admit that since that that press advisory came out I have felt pretty proud of our school, and a sense of relief and hope that all the work that teachers have been doing has finally started to pay off. But I felt this sense of non-reaction to the “12 percent increase in math and 7 percent increase in Language Arts” that was a little strange to me, and I wrote it down.

Why didn’t these percentage scores mean anything to me? Is it because I just don’t relate to numbers as easily as I do to words and emotions? It’s true that it takes a little digging to interpret the data. But when I talked to Katy again, I realized that the numbers weren’t really the most important thing here.

The one student that I always think back to, who I feel the most proud of, is a student who still scored in “Below Basic” (just below where we want them) in Language Arts, and I’m not even sure if he made the greatest gains in fluency. He was in the red for the majority of the year, but towards the middle of the year I finally started to see a change in him. His mother and I were struggling to get him to read for twenty minutes a day for homework. She would tell me how he would always say he just didn’t like to read. I would tell her that, in spite of the fact that he had been a slow reader in Spanish last year and now in English this year, he showed a great understanding of the story, and that he would often make really interesting comments because of his wide vocabulary and English language ability.

With the help of many teachers around me, I began trying to figure out what kind of books would motivate him to read, and it became apparent that he was interested in books related to science — plants, animals, rocks, the earth, astronomy — and it helped that we had a part-time science teacher who teaches science exclusively.

It was this effort that had an effect on this student: having many teachers around him who were interested not only in his success, but in his interests and his well-being. Our science teacher, who found him non-fiction books about plants and animals and shared her personal rock collection with him, the behavior management coach who would periodically check in with him just to see how he was doing, and his English language development teacher who told him that she was impressed with his vocabulary.

It was also important for me to remember to give him his moment to shine in front of the class by sharing his elaborate, complex sentences and insights about the text — especially when he was struggling to read the story on his own.

At the end of the school year on a field trip, we were riding the bus and he showed me this book on Greek mythology that told many different parts of the myths and had these pockets with paper gold coins, wings, bows and arrows. It really amazed me how deeply interested he was in this subject, and how much he could learn from this book because it was so hands-on, engaging, visual, and fun. This really confirmed for me that this student was going to succeed despite his test scores — and assured me that he would do better next year — because he finally found the motivation to read and engage with the world.

This is not to say that I would settle for less, or that I wouldn’t learn from this experience. It is only to say that it is teaching experiences like these that clarify for me what is really important, and that have motivated me more than anything else.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Public school fan

    What a moving story! This is education at its best — caring teachers working together to address the complex and specific needs of individual children on their own terms. This is a true success story. And I agree with Ms. Navarro’s feeling that the test scores are not the end all and be all. You must look at what every child is achieving — is it his or her best? And, if not, how can we get them there? This is what ALL teachers and administrators should be asking themselves about EVERY child in class. How can we help this child to achieve at his or her highest level? And then doing it. It is helping those that need help and challenging those who already understand the material. This story ably demonstates that a school is not all about test scores.

  • TheTruthHurts

    It has always been true that with motivation and a bit of guidance, most students will do remarkably well — if not on tests — in life. It’s also true that many of us can trace our sense of motivation to succeed and learn to our parents and/or our teachers. Turning on that light and keeping it on are clearly one of the fundamental things good teachers do. While I’m a proponent of testing what we value (including math and English) , I wonder how we test for this?

  • Jim Farwell

    I’m happy for your effort on behalf of your students. Our keeping in mind that children are people and not computer terminals is helpful. Human involvement, encouragement, and caring serve as motivators. What you and your colleagues did was to acknowledge this young person and to connect with what speaks to him. It is often a trial and error method, at best. In the long run it does what you find that it did for your young student. Congratulations to all!

    While testing has its place, there are numerous ways to show growth or continued need with our students. Not all people are the same, learn in the same way,at the same rate,or are even developmentally ready to learn specific material at the same time. To humanize our efforts on behalf of our students is an essential ingredient in meeting their needs.

    With warmest regards,


  • Jose, Former Student

    Ms. Navarro,

    Continue to give your students a good education and they can achive great things in life. We always need
    good teachers in our public schools.

    Thank you!

  • Sami

    This is such an inspiring story. Sometimes it’s hard to keep going on when you can’t see immediate results, but this story showed me that all of the little extra things you do in life really do count. This child is going to grow up and never forget you, the woman who helped him find joy in learning. You put forth a little extra care that went a long way, you are a great person that will make a difference in the lives of many children. Keep up the great work!!

  • Nabila

    Absolutely! After all, isn’t a student’s love for reading one of the biggest predictors of success in academia? And where do we test that?
    Go Monica!!!

  • http://www.codemama.com catrina

    You’re such a great teacher — keep up the good work! <3

  • Rita Jessen-Martinez

    Good job, Monica. It is exciting that you recognize the successes in those students who don’t always make great gains in their test scores. Keep up the great work!

  • Judy Soberanis


    It is teachers like yourself that will make the world a better place, one student at a time.

    Keep up the amazing work.

    Judy Soberanis

  • Kelly

    I have known Ms. Navarro for 15+ years, and she is one of the hardest working individuals I know. This article is a testament to that and a beautiful example of the thoughtful and individualized instruction every student deserves.