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Testing in the Mt. Diablo school district

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, September 13th, 2010 at 7:45 pm in Bay Point, Concord, Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

By Theresa Harrington

The Mt. Diablo school district has recently created a Student Achievement and School Support division that is pushing for increased testing, as part of eight new goals trustees expect to review Tuesday.

The goals are for students to master California curriculm standards at their grade levels, read by the end of third grade, be fluent in academic English, show proficiency in mathematics, pass the California High School Exit Exam, attend school regularly, graduate, and pass courses that provide the knowledge and skill necessary “to be successful in their future endeavors.”

According to a memo to parents last month, Superintendent Steven Lawrence hopes that teachers will adjust their lessons based on how students are learning. Frequent testing, Lawrence wrote, will give educators feedback about their teaching and help them track student progress.

“Periodic district benchmarks and other common assessments measure the effectiveness of initial instruction and provide important information about where instruction needs to be changed to improve results,” he wrote.

Although teachers won’t be evaluated based on these results, Lawrence intends to evaluate administrators in the new division according to test scores, graduation rates and data related to Advanced Placement coursework and career “pathways” at schools, as well as on annual principal surveys regarding district support for school improvement.

Mike Langley, president of the teachers’ union, said test scores don’t give an accurate picture of a educator’s ability to teache.

 “I firmly believe that the best way to evaluate a teacher is for a trained administrator to observe the teaching going on and see how well a teacher is teaching,” Langley said.

Testing doesn’t take into account variables that include children’s lives outside the classroom, he said. In addition, he said, testing focuses mainly on English and math, while giving short shrift to other subjects, such as P.E. or ceramics, for which it would be nearly impossible to evaluate teaching based on standardized scores.

“If you can’t evaluate all teachers using the system, then the system has to be flawed,” Langley said. “We want to quantity everything in our culture and there are some things, unfortunately, that are not quantifiable. And that makes people angry.”

In the Mt. Diablo district, administrators meet with teachers at the beginning of the school year to review the six California Standards for the Teaching Profession, then choose two to focus on for the year, he said. The standards are: engaging and supporting all students, creating and maintaning effective environments, understanding and organizing subject matter, planning instruction and designing learning experiences, assessing student learning and developing as a professional educator.

“The teacher puts together a plan and works with the administrator to improve in two areas,” Langley said. “At the end of the year, they’re evaluated on that.”

Good teachers, he said, constantly assess students both informally and formally. With the district’s limited resources, Langley said he would like to see the district spend less time and money on formal tests and more on training teachers to improve their skills.

Today, the state released Academic Performance Index and Adequate Yearly Progress scores for all districts and schools. Lawrence sent out a memo praising the district’s overall improvement, rising 11 points from 773 to 784.

Yet, the district failed to achieve the statewide proficiency goal of 800. It also failed to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress targets for student proficiency in math and English-language arts. 

This means the entire district could be placed into Program Improvement, a status intended to force reforms. Already, ten district schools are in Program Improvement, including six of the lowest-achieving schools in the state.

Here’s how those half-dozen schools fared:

Bel Air Elem. in Bay Point: Dropped 14 points from 660 to 646.

Meadow Homes Elem. in Concord: Dropped 7 points from 655 to 648. 

Rio Vista Elem. in Bay Point: Dropped 2 points from 671 to 669

Shore Acres Elem. in Bay Point: Increased 39 points from 620 to 659.

Glenbrook Middle School in Concord: Increased 17 points from 643 to 660.

Oak Grove Middle School in Concord: Increased 19 points from 627 to 646.

In a voicemail message, Lawrence touted the fact that 37 schools met their API growth targets. This is different from the statewide API target of 800.

Growth targets are incremental increases the state requires to show that schools are making progress. For example, Ayers Elementary in Concord was required to increase its score by 5 points, based on its 2009 API score of 777. Instead, Ayers far surpassed that goal, earning the highest gain of any regular school in the district by shooting up 57 points to 834.

Lawrence also highlighted the success of Cambridge Elementary in Concord, which jumped 41 points, from 686 to 727, even though it’s in Year 5 of Program Improvement.

Lawrence attributed growth to the hard work of teachers and site administrators, working collaboratively and looking at data to inform their teaching practices.

“And,” Lawrence said, “if a student isn’t getting it initially, reteaching the unit.”

To remedy problems at the three low-achieving schools where scores dropped, the district has created reform plans that it expects to fund with federal School Improvement Grants, he said. Jack O’Connell, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, told reporters in a phone conference today that these grants should be distributed to districts in about two weeks. 

“So, overall, very positive,” Lawrence said, “but we do still have areas of growth.”

He pointed out that the new Student Achievement and School Support division is working with schools to help them improve achievement. Susan Petersen, the former principal of Delta View Elementary in Pittsburg, is helping to spearhead this effort as the recently-appointed Director of Elementary Support.

Petersen said in a voicemail message that she is working with Bel Air, Rio Vista and Meadow Homes elementary schools to help them adopt some of her former staff’s successful practices.

“We’re doing some pretty exciting stuff districtwide, which replicates a lot of the work we did at Delta View,” she said.

Do you agree with Lawrence’s plan to increase student testing?


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3 Responses to “Testing in the Mt. Diablo school district”

  1. Doctor J Says:

    Replicating success is always a good strategy — the question is whether the principals at these underachieving schools have the leadership skills to take successful teaching practices and replicate them at their schools by causing the teaching culture to change.

  2. tharrington Says:

    As I understand it, the new division is supposed to “coach” principals to help them improve their leadership skills so they can make the changes necessary at their sites to boost student achievement.

  3. Doctor J Says:

    Theresa, so what qualifications does the new division have to “coach principals” ? Has any of them successfully “turned around” an “underachieving school” ? Has any of them successfully “coached a principal” to greater success ? If so, who ?

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