Most schools follow the annual ritual of measuring student performance, learning, or achievement through giving tests. The process may involve all students, all teachers, and others for one or several days during the latter part of each school year. The hope is that the tests will determine how effective schools are by measuring how well students learn. This ritual is usually paired with a perverse irony; that very little use is made of test results once they are received. This paper describes how the results of testing may be presented in a meaningful form, and used for grade level and individual teacher conferences to improve the schools through improving instruction.
The following pages include the key findings from a complete report which was prepared for one school. The actual school is a combination elementary and middle school with about 750 students. Information in this report is based upon 428 students in the elementary (K-5) portion of the school. The school is located in a rural area near a very small town, and as such is the primary gathering place for people in the community. The school system requires annual testing of all students using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS).
School growth by Content Area
Grade equivalent scores were selected for ease of interpretation and straight forward understanding of learning. Figure 1 shows school growth overall in the seven content areas as classified by the ITBS as follows: Reading (Read), Language (Lang), Work Study (Wkst), Mathematics (Math), Computation (Comp), Social Studies (Scst), and Science (Scie). A year of growth in a subject area is represented by a +1.00 grade equivalent increase. Averages for an individual, class, or school above or below this average are the clearest indication of learning in the school. As may be seen, this school did very well in science (+1.30), was on the average for work study skills (+.98), and was somewhat below the expected annual growth in all the other areas. How this school performed in comparison with the other schools in this system is not known as comparable data are not available.
School growth by content area on the ITBS (n=428)
Dividing the school average into grade levels provides more interesting variability. As may be seen in figure 2, two scores appear distinctive, the first and third grade growth averages. The first grade growth at +.20 years is based upon a small number of students who were retained in the first grade for the second year. As the second year of instruction has now been completed, it is clear that repeating the first grade did not stimulate these youngsters to improve their performance, at least in reading. This pointed to an important issue for the school’s principal, who had observed that failing students was practiced far more often than she judged appropriate. This limited evidence might be used to support her in that judgment.
By further subdividing growth in reading, Figure 3, it is clear that great diversity is evident across individual teachers, with some producing about half the expected learning in a year. In addition to the four third-grade teachers, teachers 2D and 5C achieved about the same result as the teachers in the third grade. While it might be suggested that the third grade text book was inadequate, this would not explain poor performance in both the 2nd and 5th grades. If the text were seriously implicated, the results from previous years could be consulted. It would seem more likely that review and remediation of teaching methods would be appropriate for those falling so far below the others in reading achievement.
Reading growth by grade level
Reading growth by section (teacher)
At the time science and social studies instruction did not start until the third grade in this state in order to concentrate on reading and math fundamentals the first two years. Figure 4 shows growth in social studies for all students who have completed a year of instruction.
Growth in Social Studies
Consistent with earlier results, the four third grade teachers continue to perform quite miserably, with each producing less than half a year’s growth in social science. One teacher, who should be known only as teacher 3B, not only produced no growth in social studies in a year, but her students performed worse in social studies after spending a year in her class than they did in the beginning. This circumstance clearly qualifies for individual follow-up to determine what is going on in her social studies class, a serious administrative problem, although her peers in the third grade did not perform much better.
As you may recall science instruction was the single strongest subject in the school overall as measured by student achievement tests. Figure 5 shows these results for all instructional sections.
Growth in Science by Section
Using +1.0 as the reference, the students in 9 of 10 classes contributed to the school’s outstanding performance in science. Only the students of teacher 3A performed below the expected year of growth in science. Surprisingly the other three teachers in the third grade performed in exemplary fashion, establishing their ability to do well, at least in science. This very peculiar result deserves additional inquiry, as one of the top two teachers in science in the school (3B) had a class of students who effectively lost a year of instruction in social studies.
Prompted by this peculiar pattern of test scores, the principal conferred with teacher 3B. Her individual pattern of test results is shown in figure 6. While she performed at an outstanding level in science, her students gained in the other areas of the ITBS at the half-year of growth level. In social studies her students lost ground.
In conference teacher 3B said that she thoroughly enjoyed science. Her enthusiasm for science may well have been what encouraged the other teachers in the third grade to do much better than in the other subjects. When asked about her students’ test results in social studies, she indicated that she really didn’t spend much time in the classroom on social studies. Based upon her test results in social studies, the implication is that she spent no time at all on the subject. This is a serious abdication of teaching responsibilities, and every administrator should be aware of the possibility of taking time from one subject to give it to another.
Student learning in class 3B
A secondary contributor may also figure into the science versus social studies scores. In an austerity measure, the State Department of Education had decreed that the schools could save money by requiring only half as many books in science and social studies as they had students. This school system elected to do so, and divided instruction into two halves. Half of the students were taught social studies for half a year, while the other half was taught science. At mid-year they switched books and started each subject again from the beginning. This would help make sense of the test results, but it does little to explain the outstanding performance in science across all students.
A question which arises from this peculiar result is how to approach and possibly restructure the dynamics of this third grade group of teachers. Clearly teacher 3B can’t be allowed to short change her other six subject areas because she enjoys science so much. At the same time she may well be a catalyst for improving teaching science in the third grade. If her three peers are weak teachers generally one might leave the structure as is. An alternate possibility is partial departmentalization of science instruction, giving teacher 3B primary responsibility for science in the third grade.
One question which remains is how much of the deficit in learning in grade three, except for science, is due to poor time management of instructional effort, deficient lesson plans in the other subjects, or a need for remedial work with the third grade teachers (plus others) to improve learning in the weak areas in the school.
On getting the most from test results
The authors believe that when significant content area learning occurs in the schools, the teacher is the primary external agent for that growth. It is the teachers’ preparation, organization and classroom performance which explain much of the overall growth among the students. This study illustrates the ability of tests to identify areas of concern where capable administration should follow up. Several such areas have been identified.
The complete school information was summarized as a year-end study of the school’s performance. The school’s overall and grade-level performance report was presented to all the teachers. Each individual teacher was also provided his/her own performance profile for the year, as shown for teacher 3B above.
At the beginning of the following school year, all teachers were required to collect their assigned students’ year-end scores. This provided the starting point for preparation of lesson plans to enhance instruction in individually weak areas. It also helped identify those students who might require special assistance within selected content areas during the year. This use of test results by teachers for both evaluation of and preparation for instruction can be seen as a positive adjunct to teaching, rather than an administrative diversion from the school’s routine.
In addition to the teachers and the school, many other influences contribute to effective learning. The individual student, the peer group, the student’s health, and the family all may make a positive or negative contribution to learning. Unfortunately, when any one of these other influences takes on a significantly negative character, it may destroy the school’s effectiveness. For instance, it makes little sense to blame the school for low achievement when a child is being abused at home. When one or several of these supportive influences becomes anti-school, the very best teachers in the best of schools will be unable to obtain the student’s best work. School should not become the whipping-boy for all of society’s ailments.
Major political influence has contaminated learning in the United States since Brown versus the Board of Education. One of these blind political alleys is the notion that support of the schools through tax dollars has a significant effect on learning. The political classes and their administrations are beholden to the notion that if school support were to be equalized across schools, student learning would become more equalized. This myth has been practiced for several decades and has demonstrated that school funding has precious little to do with whether Johnny or Mary can learn to read, do math, or understand science.
Only when the schools return to the fundamentals of learning, direct external influences and supportive or conflicting cultural influences, will the students be encouraged to do their best. All the cure-all, one size fits all, simple solutions are red herrings. Until the political classes learn this simple lesson, student learning in the U.S. schools will suffer.