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Plan To Rapidly Improve Middle-School Academics On The Way

by John Ellenberger


   A previous article in this newspaper (See The Groton Herald, October 19, 2018) described an academic performance issue in the Groton Dunstable middle school which was uncovered during the current round of statewide standardized MCAS testing. 

   Although the issue with English and math performance had been on the radar, this was the first year in almost five years that the state education department kept the state standardized testing stable for two years in a row. At least two samples for the same students on the same test are needed to arrive at valid performance measurements for students across the state.

    The constantly changing test regime was mostly due to the state significantly reworking the English, math and science curriculum to adapt to the so-called “common core” curriculum that is being rolled out in many states across the US. Unfortunately, the current middle school  class was the group most affected by all these changes.

   In a rapid-fire set of meetings, GD teachers, led by curriculum coordinator Dr. Katie Novak, have formulated a plan to help the current middle school class catch-up and simultaneously prepare the high school faculty for the new set of students currently in elementary and middle schools.

   Key to their plan is a commercial data-driven testing and evaluation tool called iReady. This tool allows curriculum coordinators to set standards for lessons on a specific concept which are then used to drive quick, online, student evaluations to evaluate the proficiency levels of student by classroom. Classroom instructors can then use the dashboard produced by the tool to tailor their instruction to specific student needs.

    The new plan calls for setting aside time blocks so that teachers can work with any students that need help with a specific concept or to challenge high performing students further. These reserved time blocks are modeled after a similar program that was implemented successfully at the elementary level last year. In addition students will be doing math assessments online rather than on paper so they are better prepared for the new MCAS online math tests.

   All this will feed into what Novak calls a “data wall” which is essentially a map of each student in each classroom and their performance levels. Faculty and staff will be attending monthly meetings to review each of these data walls and strategize with each other on potential corrections.

   At the high school level the curriculum will be revised to accommodate students coming from Middle School who have been trained using the new common core lessons.  In addition Novak needed to address a state metric that indicated not enough special needs students in the High School were taking advanced courses.  

   While this is somewhat counter-intuitive, it is actually fairly common for a student who may be struggling in one area to excel in another and want to take on more advanced work.

  Because the current high school curriculum has four, and sometimes five, levels of complexity, the solution will be to compress the choices and offer fewer levels, with a wider range of complexity in each level. The lowest level (CP2) courses will be eliminated and some of the AP and Honors students would be accommodated by allowing them to work on advanced levels alongside peers following the normal (CP1) curriculum. Students would still get AP/Honor credit for college admission purposes.

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