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When state report cards get released right in the middle of a school campaign, both sides are bound to seize upon them as proof that their cause is the right one. Well, guess what? State report cards were just released and they prove that our cause is the right one.

Most of the measures on the state report cards have remarkably little to do with what goes on inside a school and much more to do with what goes on outside a school. Study after study has shown that scores on standardized tests (what much of our report card’s grades are based on) do not reflect the quality of a teacher’s teaching or a student’s learning, but instead simply reflect the socioeconomic background of the particular children in that particular district. Look closely at a school’s test scores and you can make an educated guess about how many of those children’s parents went to college and how many of those families are living in poverty. Our local test scores reflect that as well.

The state report card’s only real measure of how much a teacher is teaching in the nine months that he or she has a certain student, and the report card’s only real measure of how much a student is learning in the nine months he or she is enrolled in school, is “Value Added.” (Let me say here that there are many, many other measures of how well a teacher is teaching or a student is learning that aren’t easily quantifiable and therefore not considered on our report cards, but that’s a post for another day.) Value Added means pretty much what it says it means: how much academic value was added to that child’s educational life in the course of that one school year? And the measurement is straightforward: assess a child’s abilities and skills in August or September (how well they can read, what their math skills are, and so on) and then assess again in May or June. This shows one of the few things we can measure that’s actually worth measuring: their academic growth.

Here’s how the Ohio Department of Education describes Value Added: “This is your district’s average progress for its students in math and reading, grades 4-8. It looks at how much each student learns in a year. Did the students get a year’s worth of growth? Did they get more? Did they get less?”

There are four categories on which districts are graded: Overall, Gifted Students, Students Achieving in the Lowest 20th Percentile, and Students with Disabilities. And for the second year in a row, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District earned A’s in every category of value added: A, A, A, A.

This means one thing: Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

But how can this be, one might ask, when many of the other test performance measures are low? Consider this scenario, some version of which our schools face every single day: A 4th grader moves into CH-UH from another district, reading at the first grade level. That child is placed in a small class with a reading specialist to learn the necessary skills to become a reader. Imagine he works extra hard, as does his teacher, and demonstrates one-and-a-half years’ worth of growth in that one school year. That’s awesome! That is better than expected and means he succeeded, with the help of his teachers, in moving from reading at a first grade level to reading at halfway through a second grade level. It also means, unfortunately, that when he takes the 4th grade PARCC test in reading, he will fail (especially because the PARCC uses reading material at one to two grade levels above the grade being tested). And that’s the result that people will point to in the newspaper to say that our district is also failing. And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The kind of growth that student demonstrated, as evidenced by CH-UH’s four A’s, points out an important truth: Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

Now, some of the naysayers (we have naysayers, in case you hadn’t noticed) might assume that this Value Added category must not mean much; maybe it’s easy to earn four A’s. I will show you, through comparison with other districts, that it is not. I don’t mean to put these other districts down (I know and love many people whose children go to school in them and they no doubt outperform us in other categories), but such a side-by-side look is necessary to understand that it is not, in fact, easy to earn all A’s in Value Added.

Our neighbors to the south (Shaker) earned D, A, C, C (see the categories listed above to refresh your memory). Someone may say, “Well, their kids are clearly doing too well to begin with to even show that much growth.” But then I would reply, “Look at Solon, who earned B, A, B, A.” Hudson earned A, A, C, A, which is sort of revealing (maybe they don’t have the same kind of experience we do in CH-UH at reaching the lowest achieving kids and helping them grow). Other districts widely believed to be doing a great job educating their community’s children, are (Beachwood earned A, B, B, A — almost as good as Heights). And this is not one of those cases where starting with low scores benefits you (as in, then you have more room to grow); East Cleveland earned F, F, C, C. Two districts that we’re often compared to (Lakewood and Euclid) earned A, D, A, B and A, D, A, A respectively, which shows that CH-UH is doing a noticeably better job meeting the needs of our highest achievers and helping them grow as well.

I don’t honestly believe that levies should become referendums on the performance of school districts, but they very often do. I have seen, time and again, in the comments of the anti-school folks: Where are the results?

Well, here they are. The results show that our teachers are teaching all our students, from the one with disabilities to the one identified as gifted. The results show that all those students are learning, from the one who started at the bottom to the one who started at the top. Now those are what I call results.

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This is part three of a multi-part series addressing resident concerns about the upcoming bond issue (Issue 81) to fund facilities renovations in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District. Part 1 can be read here and Part 2 here. Please feel free to share any and all of these posts with any undecided friends, family, colleagues or neighbors.

The most upsetting argument I’ve seen against Issue 81 is the claim that our schools are failing. This is frustrating because it ignores the obvious physical needs of our buildings, but also because it simply is not true. The schools are, in my opinion, thriving. Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

Here is the reality: Our district serves poor children. This is not an excuse, nor a shift of blame. I happen to be proud that we serve poor children and I think we should all celebrate that fact. But, as research shows, children raised in poverty come to school less ready to learn, already significantly behind their peers on the first day of kindergarten. They often have smaller vocabularies, shorter attention spans and few of the pre-literacy or pre-numeracy skills required for learning to read, write and compute. These problems continue throughout their educational careers, which are often disrupted due to frequent moves in and out of schools and districts.

I am not saying that these children are unable to learn. Absolutely not. But they are expensive to teach. And our district is teaching them. As part of an innovative and transformational educational plan enacted by the administration several years ago, our 1st through 5th graders are now ability-grouped for two-and-a-half hour language arts blocks.  Class sizes range from five to eighteen and include instruction by ELA specialists, who are experts in their field.  This is expensive as it requires additional teachers on staff. But it is effective.

We are only now beginning to see the difference this plan is making, as this year’s third graders are the first to have had this experience since first grade. But even on the elementary test score data from this past year, improvements are noteworthy. Proficiency ratings on reading scores improved from the prior year among 3rd graders. Our district earned four A’s in the Value Added category with reading improvements seen among all sub-groups of students.

Touting that achievement is not an exercise in positive spin. Value Added is about student growth, the most important measurement of successful teaching and learning. Our schools added value to the academic performance of every subgroup of students on which districts are measured except Hispanic Students. This is significant and is the greatest endorsement the district could possibly wish for.

Consider this scenario, some version of which our schools face every single day: Imagine a 4th grader who moves into a CH-UH school from another district, reading at a first grade level. That child will be placed in a small class with a reading specialist and will learn the necessary skills to become a reader. Imagine he works extra hard, as does his teacher, and demonstrates one-and-a-half years of growth in that one school year. That’s awesome! That is better than expected and means he succeeded, with the help of his teachers, in moving from reading at a first grade level to reading at halfway through a second grade level. It also means, unfortunately, that when he takes the 4th grade Ohio Achievement Test in reading, he will fail. And that’s the result that people will point to in the newspaper to say that our district is failing. And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  The kind of growth that student demonstrated, as evidenced by CH-UH’s four A’s in Value Added, means one thing: the trajectory of student performance is positive.

I would also like to add that the bar by which we are judging our students is constantly being raised. The material I taught my students as a 4th grade teacher at Coventry School a decade ago is the same material my son recently learned in 2nd grade at Fairfax. We are continually asking our teachers to teach more and our students to learn more. And they are doing it.

Is there room for improvement? Of course! And the necessary renovation of Cleveland Heights High, Roxboro Middle and Monticello Middle Schools will not magically make our students perform better on tests, nor will it reduce the number of students we serve who live in poverty.  But it will give all the district’s students the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability, in environments that are healthy, comfortable, inspiring and conducive to the best 21st century models of teaching and learning.

I showed my 4th grader a picture of the proposed high school and he said, “Wow, Mom, that looks like a college!” I do not doubt that our district’s children will hold their heads a little higher walking into a physical space that shows they are valued. I value every one of the students in this district, no matter their background or socio-economic class, no matter the actions of their parents, and no matter their test scores. I value them and I will prove that by voting FOR Issue 81 on November 5. I hope you’ll join me.

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