Anyone interested in what’s going on in our Madison schools should get a copy of the 2013-2014 Annual Report on the MMSD Strategic Framework and read it. You can review the report on line, but that’s really not a substitute for holding the 14-page document in your hands.
We can have all the feel-good and self-congratulatory exercises we want – and I have certainly participated in my share – but results matter. That’s why the annual report is so encouraging.
I am in my seventh year on the Madison School Board. I started serving just as Art Rainwater was stepping down, and have been on the Board during Dan Nerad’s four years, Jane Belmore’s year as interim superintendent, and now Jen Cheatham’s one year plus.
During these years we’ve generally recognized that, in terms of academic achievement, we weren’t where we need to be as a school district. We have always had a good number of high-achieving students and we have been able to point to and take some credit for their accomplishments. But we also have a very troubling achievement gap that has finally attracted the attention it deserves over the past few years. And over the past several years we just haven’t been able to move the needle much in terms of student learning. We’ve tried a lot of different strategies – too many strategies – but nothing has really clicked. During my time on the Board we have never had reason to celebrate clear signs of district-wide improvement.
We adopted school district’s strategic framework about a year ago. Goal number one in the framework is that every student will be on track to graduate, as measured by student growth and achievement at key milestones. We identified those milestones a year ago: reading by third grade; proficiency in reading and math in fifth grade; high school readiness in eighth grade; college readiness in junior year of high school; and high school graduation and completion rates.
We now have results from our first year under the framework. They are indisputably positive and encouraging, particularly for our elementary schools.
For elementary and middle school, we measure our students’ academic proficiency and growth with the MAP test, which stands for Measures of Academic Progress and is administered in the fall and spring. We look at two measures. The first is the percentage of students whose scores place them in what MAP defines as the proficient category or above.
The second measure is growth in MAP performance from fall through spring. Because MAP is a well-established assessment, the MAP folks are able to say how much each student is expected to improve, on average, from fall through spring, given his or her grade level and his or her fall MAP score. The MAP growth score measures the percentage of students whose spring scores demonstrate growth over the course of the year that exceeded the average growth for similarly-situated students nationally.
So, how did we do this first year?
On third grade reading, the overall percentage of students considered proficient or above increased two percent. The number of third graders who exceeded their growth targets in reading between the fall and spring MAP assessment increased seven percent.
We saw positive results for our fifth graders. In reading, those measured as proficient or above increased six percent, and the number of students exceeding their growth targets increased 11 percent. In math, the comparable figures were a four percent proficiency gain and a six percent gain in exceeding growth targets.
Eighth graders similarly showed strong results in reading – a seven percent increase in proficiency and a five percent gain in growth. The math results for eighth graders were mixed – while there was a two percent gain in proficiency, the number of students exceeding their growth target actually decreased by one percent.
The results for high schoolers were more positive than not. On the plus side of the ledger, there was a decrease in course failures and an increase in students’ GPA. But ACT scores didn’t budge – a one percent increase in the students deemed college ready in reading and a one percent decrease in students deemed college-ready in math. The graduation rate, where the data lags behind by a year, saw a two percent improvement from the class of 2012 to the class of 2013.
On the whole, the annual report paints a picture of some generally modest but genuine improvements in MAP-measured learning, with a handful of schools taking off and no schools lagging seriously behind. That’s certainly positive. But reasons for optimism extend beyond this year’s results.
What’s more promising is that it seems reasonable to attribute a good share of the improvements to the specific and focused strategies we have pursued this year. And particularly good results seem to be associated with schools that have really bought into the approach.
This bodes well for better results on the horizon. Once it becomes widely evident and accepted that these strategies actually work for us, we’ll have broader and deeper buy-in from teachers grown understandably wary about yet another model of school improvement strategy. The process of improvement will become self-reinforcing. We’ll have more focus on specific school improvement goals, more collaboration, more attention paid to classroom data, more data-informed adjustments made to instruction strategies, and we’ll continue to see better results. Our students will learn more and show more growth towards becoming the well-rounded, knowledgeable, culturally-informed young men and women we want to see marching across the Kohl Center stage to accept their diplomas each June.
We need this. Our teachers have been battered and buffeted for the last several years (ever since the last gubernatorial election, come to think of it.) We have high hopes of capitalizing on strong community support and a culture of great teaching to become a model for what successful public schools can achieve. But we need some wins. We need to be able to show positive results to assure us that, this time, we’re on the right path. And now we’ve got some positive results. Our path forward seems to be the right one.
Students don’t thrive by MAP scores alone, of course. Another of our strategic framework goals is that every student has access to a challenging and well-rounded education. For next year’s report, we’ll include at least baseline data on access and participation in world language, arts, advanced coursework and extracurricular activities.
Our third framework goal is that every student, family and employee experiences a customer-service-oriented school system. To measure our performance on this one, we’ll start this spring with a new and improved survey on school climate for students, families and staff.
But for now we have the first year of academic results under the strategic framework. The results are good and hold real promise for better student learning outcomes in the years ahead. That’s a big deal for us.