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June 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 9

From F to A in 180 Days

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From F to A in 180 Days- thumbnail
Since 1999, all public schools in Florida have received a letter grade at the end of the school year to indicate their levels of student achievement. In accordance with the governor's A+ Accountability Plan, these grades are determined by a formula that awards each school points for students who pass state tests. In addition, schools receive points for students in the lowest quartile who make gains in reading. Should a school receive an F two years in a row, students in that school are eligible for opportunity scholarships that enable them either to choose a higher-performing public school or to attend a private school. Layered atop the demands of the A+ system are the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
In spring 2002, Hopewell Elementary became the first school in its district to receive a grade of F. The school served 311 students in grades K–5; 90 percent were African American and 94 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Just one year later, in spring 2003, Hopewell received an A and became the first school in the state to soar from an F to an A in a single year. How did the school make such significant gains? Hopewell's principal commented, “You can't pinpoint just one [factor]. It's a collection of things that we have looked at and done differently.”
As the demands of No Child Left Behind bear down on schools, it is becoming increasingly important for educators to receive guidance in selecting strategies that promote student success. Hopewell effectively responded to external pressures by following the course of action recommended by Elmore (2002, p.20): “reaching agreement on good practice and making that agreement evident in organization and pedagogy.”

Examining Success

To study Hopewell's practice during the 2002–2003 school year—the year the school made such gains on the state test—and to prepare for the following school year, personnel from both the school and the local university designed a survey to determine factors that teachers thought led to improved student performance on state tests. We also conducted interviews with a sample of teachers and administrators. On the survey, teachers ranked a list of nine practices that Hopewell had implemented the previous school year in order of perceived effectiveness. The practices included after-school tutoring, increased common planning time for classroom and arts teachers, the integrated arts program, intensive academic instruction (small-group instruction for the lowest-achieving students), parent meetings, periodic formative assessment, teacher development of test-style reading questions, weekly discussion among faculty of student performance data, and a whole-school focus on one specific reading skill each week. In addition, teachers explained on the survey why they gave certain practices top rankings and listed additional factors that they perceived as important influences on student achievement gains. Interviews enabled school personnel to elaborate on their views.
The factors that we report here represent a synthesis of data revealed on the survey, which was completed by 29 of 30 instructional staff members, and culled from 12 interviews with school personnel. Factors influencing improved student performance on the state tests fall into two categories: the conditions of teaching and learning—that is, the circumstances within which teachers teach and students learn—and the nature of instruction.

Conditions of Teaching and Learning

Teachers viewed several conditions as central to students' improved performance. The factor most often selected as important in the survey (15 of 29 responses) was increased opportunities for instruction tailored to student strengths and weaknesses. In particular, teachers cited the importance of after-school tutoring, a program in which they worked with groups of 10 students for two hours of uninterrupted instruction twice weekly. In another tutoring program called Intensive Academic Instruction, teachers tutored students from the lowest quartile for an extra 30–35 minutes during the school day to help the students improve specific skills. Teachers worked with these students during one of the two daily art classes on a rotating schedule so that all students were still able to benefit from the comprehensive arts experience.
Another reason for success noted by teachers was the positive attitude of the school's educators. Teachers believed that the students could succeed and took charge of helping them do so. An administrator commented on the strong sense of responsibility that teachers assumed for student learning: At this school, it's not a blame game. We don't get into blaming the kids or their families or anybody else. We just take the kids as they are, and we do everything we can do with them. At this school, the teachers are relentless.
The interviews revealed other conditions of instruction that played pivotal roles in Hopewell's success. An important factor was teachers' use of student performance data from a variety of sources to drive instruction. By examining homework, in-class assignments, and weekly assessments, teachers identified specific student strengths and weaknesses to address in class, during Intensive Academic Instruction, and in after-school tutoring. As they tailored their instruction to student needs, teachers saw a direct impact on student achievement. Using student achievement data helped make the teachers “more aware of their teaching,” as one faculty member explained.
The interviews also revealed a second important condition of instruction—Hopewell's strong ties with the local university. Hopewell collaborated with faculty and students in the university's college of education to improve the learning of all the students in the elementary school. Student teachers worked in classrooms and as after-school tutors, and university faculty consulted with Hopewell's teachers and administrators to solve problems, develop programs, and acquire various resources. A professor in residence visited weekly to consult with beginning teachers. Several faculty members mentioned in interviews that the professor in residence helped stimulate ideas and communication among the faculty and administration.

Nature of Instruction

The teachers believed that two schoolwide approaches to instruction implemented during the 2002–2003 school year had a major impact on students' improved achievement on the state tests: teacher analysis of the reading test and the school's integrated arts program.
One teacher commented on the school's need to focus on the reading test:We knew our kids could read. They just weren't showing that they could. So we focused on how to answer the questions [on the state reading test], looking at the structure of those questions, how they are worded, and how to answer them.
Fourteen teachers ranked the attention to test questions as most important, finding this factor crucial to students' success. An external consultant coached the teachers in developing questions like those found on state tests for given texts, which the teachers compiled in notebooks that became schoolwide resources. Most teachers believed that gaining insight into the test strengthened the match between their instruction and the state reading test's performance standards. These teachers did not view this practice as merely “teaching to the test” or drilling students on test questions. Instead, they perceived that they were teaching students new ways of thinking about text and of expressing their understanding of what they read.
By teaching them how to respond to the different question stems, teachers prepared students to examine text in a variety of ways that promoted a more deliberate and strategic approach to reading than most students had previously used. Students learned to distinguish among a variety of texts, such as a recipe, a poem, or a nonfiction work, and familiarized themselves with such questions as “What is the main idea?”, “What is the sequence of ideas?”, and “What is the author's purpose?” Students also learned how to identify the answer to each kind of question, underlining the portion of the text that helped them come up with an answer. One teacher explained that understanding test questions was “half the battle. If [students] don't understand what they're being asked, they can't answer the questions.”
Teachers also viewed the integrated arts program that had been implemented that school year as an important factor in boosting achievement. With funding from a comprehensive school reform grant, Hopewell was able to provide students with additional experiences in the arts, including dance, drama, and music instruction in string instruments. All of these subjects were integrated into academic instruction.
Thirteen teachers ranked the integrated arts program as one of the top five factors in student success. Seven of these teachers taught primary grades and valued the arts as a way to address diverse learning styles. When asked about the arts program, the principal explained,The children were excited about coming to school. Tardies decreased, absences decreased, behavior problems decreased because now, we take violin! In 2nd grade, every child has the opportunity to play a violin. Every child takes dance in this school. Children were thrilled about being immersed in a school environment with the arts.
A 4th grade teacher added, The program has done a good job of motivating the children to want to come to school and has helped them tap into activities that they are good at.
The remaining six teachers who gave high rankings to the integrated arts program were teachers of the arts. These educators pointed to the value of motivating and engaging students as well as to the value of integrating arts instruction with other subjects. One arts teacher commented, “The grade-level plays helped students learn to focus and cooperate, which resulted in improved academic performance.” Another stated, “Students were more engaged while working, and discipline problems were down.” A third noted, “Students were able to apply the respect, discipline, and focus they learned from the arts to the entire school experience.”

Sustaining Success

As satisfying as it was to earn an A, Hopewell knew it could not rest on its laurels. The school implemented several strategies during the 2003–2004 school year to further refine instruction, provide faculty support, and capitalize on teachers' strengths. For example, teachers continued to teach students how to understand and respond to the kinds of questions that appeared on the state reading test, but they began asking students to substantiate their answers by writing down next to their response their reason for choosing it. An administrator explained,Sometimes students just write what they think the answer should be, and they don't go back to the text itself. So we started telling them to prove it.
Although Hopewell had a longstanding partnership with the local university, school personnel believed that a new collaborative professional development program with the university played a particularly vital role during the 2003–2004 school year. Through the Teacher and Principal Fellows program, the majority of the teachers, along with several other school educators, participated in a yearlong effort to study and improve their teaching practices.
Another strategy for strengthening instruction was to departmentalize instruction for mathematics, science, and writing in the 4th and 5th grades. Teachers who were well-versed in the different subject areas enthusiastically took over teaching responsibilities in those areas.Cultivating teacher leadership was also important to Hopewell. The principal noted an increase in teacher leadership activities as teachers presented at conferences, strategized across grade levels, and took charge of various school-based programs and activities. The principal believed that the Teacher and Principal Fellows program encouraged teacher leadership and helped teachers gain confidence in asserting themselves as leaders.

Not Just Teaching to the Test

With these additional strategies in place to strengthen both instruction and the school's teaching context, Hopewell again earned a grade of A in spring 2004 despite the school's 49 percent mobility rate and a special education population comparable in size to that of the previous year. Although school grades for 2005 have not yet been released, available indicators point to another strong performance at Hopewell. For example, the school writing score on end-of-year tests is the second-highest among the district's 24 public elementary schools. Additional achievement data confirm the improvement in student learning. The Scholastic Reading Inventory, chapter tests in the reading and mathematics basal textbooks, and writing samples collected throughout the year all demonstrate students' steady improvement.
Instead of narrowing the curriculum and instruction in response to high-stakes test pressures, teachers at Hopewell Elementary School accepted the challenge by broadening the range of instructional practices to promote student participation and learning. Their attention to addressing individual students' needs, developing new ways of thinking, and engaging students in curriculum and instruction suggests that they are committed to learning that is more broadly defined than a score on a single test. Further, the school's attention to the quality of the context in which teachers teach and students learn bodes well for the school's future. At Hopewell, teaching and learning are not taken for granted. Both are held up for examination, reflection, and revision.
As concern for the achievement gap between white students and students of color intensifies (Hedges & Nowell, 1998; Madaus & Clarke, 2001), educators are striving to determine the practices and conditions that can help close the gap. Although questions remain about the relationship between high test scores and student learning (Amrein & Berliner, 2002) and the deleterious effects of high-stakes testing on students (Horn, 2003), students for whom such tests are a reality need teachers who can help them succeed. The Hopewell story provides insight into the kinds of conditions and practices that accomplish this goal.
References

Amrein, A., & Berliner, D. (2002, March 28). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10 (18). Available: http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/

Elmore, R. F. (2002). Bridging the gap between standards and achievement. Washington, DC: The Albert Shanker Institute.

Hedges, L., & Nowell, A. (1998). Black-white test score convergence since 1965. In C. Jenks & M. Phillips (Eds.), The black-white test score gap (pp. 149–181). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Horn, C. (2003). High-stakes testing and students: Stopping or perpetuating a cycle of failure? Theory Into Practice, 42, 30–41.

Madaus, G., & Clarke, M. (2001). The impact of high-stakes testing on minority students. In G. Orfield & M. Kornhaber (Eds.), Raising standards or raising barriers? Inequality and high-stakes testing in public education (pp. 85–106). New York: Century Foundation.

End Notes

1 The school name is a pseudonym.

Elizabeth Bondy has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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