Sunday, August 9, 2015

Reading Proficiency Scores Up in District 742

Today's St. Cloud Daily Times contains an editorial lambasting test results in the St. Cloud School District.  My blog has been silent for a couple months, but it has woken up to set the record straight.  We are making more progress than ever before in reading, and in fact, the progress we are making compares favorably to school districts faced with similar challenges. The folks at the Times Editorial Board have missed out on the real story, which is huge gains in reading proficiency rates in St. Cloud.

Before I continue with the defense of the progress that we have made in reading, I want to insert this disclaimer.   This is not a defensive knee jerk reaction, not one of those I'm satisfied with mediocrity posts.  I'm pretty radical when it comes to demanding change in public education, and I believe that we have a long long way to go in St. Cloud and in Minnesota to educate all of our kids.    I'm not upset at all that the Times is challenging us to do better: I'm just disappointed that they don't recognize the progress that is underway.   We need to make big improvements in our math and science education; we need to make more improvements in reading.  We need to improve our graduation rate.  But our teachers have just made some huge improvements in reading, and I don't think that the way you produce more good change is to ignore the good change that has just occurred.

Two years ago, we asked our new superintendent to develop a strategic plan that would maintain the good things that we have in the district, but also to make a difference in the achievement gap.   We asked him to focus first on reading.    With the assistance of the community, we developed a strategic plan and we agreed to focus first on reading and then on mathematics.   In 2014-2015 we installed major changes in the teaching of reading: a full complement of new texts and related materials in reading, professional development, new teaching methods, and more and earlier interventions.   Next year, we will begin the same process for mathematics.   
 Why start with reading:  because reading is essential for all learning.   When our reading scores are down, it makes science and math difficult, because modern math and science requires use of complex sophisticated reading.  We have work to do in math and science, but the first step is to attack reading, and that is what we  commenced to do.

Eye-Popping Growth in Reading Proficiency.  Since  the MCA-III test results came out this year, I've been compiling our reading results for students on free/reduced lunch.  That's an increasing part of our student population, now over 50%.  I wanted to see whether our efforts were making a difference with those students.   Across the district, we've been asking teachers to make big changes and to target reading in a big way this year.   The Times Editorial is grossly unfair to the efforts of those teachers.   In fact, their efforts have paid huge dividends and vindicated the decision to make a push for change.   We have a long way to go, but we are not alone.  The real story this year is great progress in reading in District 742: more on the way next year. The times Editorial disrespects the hard work of teachers from whom we have asked a lot: the work that they have done is paying off, and will pay off  in years to come.

Why ELL Students Who Have No English in the Home Score Low on the MCA-III.  Before I report some statistics, I want to say a few words about the MCA-III reading test itself. The MCA-III is a very demanding test based upon the common core standards.  The common core is significantly more rigorous than the MCA-II, and especially challenging for students who aren’t getting English language support at home.
When the State switched from MCA-II to MCA-III reading, the percentage of White students in Minnesota scoring above the proficiency cutoff dropped 17 percentage points from 82% to 65%.    The percentage of ELL students scoring proficient dropped 22 percentage points, from 38% to 16%.  And, within the ELL population, the drop was greater, or lesser, depending upon the specific challenges faced by the group in accommodating to complex English language.  Our Black ELL proficiency dropped from 19.8 percent in 2012, on the MCA-II to 5.6%

Five hundred sixty five  of the District 742 MCA-III reading tester-takers were  ELL students in 2013, that’s 12 percent ELL.   The number of ELL students in District 742 rose by 361 ELL students increasing the percentage of ELL test takers to 18.7%.

By way of comparison, 7.5% of the State's test takers were ELL students, and that percentage stayed fairly stable, rising less than a half percentage point to 7.8%%.   Moreover, a very significant percentage of our ELL students come to us from households where there is no English.   These students are going to learn English, and over time, we expect that they will do really well.  But the difference in language learning challenge is starkly different, for example, from Hispanic English Language learners, who use the same alphabet, speak a native language that is built on the same linguistic and phonic roots, and who have a much higher rate of reading literacy in their native language.

The MCA-III test has punished school districts and charter schools with large or growing English Language Learner populations.    A recent MnPost article  describes the drop in reading and math scores at Harvest Prep, one of the charter schools often cited as providing outstanding results, because the school is now experiencing significant growth in ELL and special education.   If you can't understand why including ELL students in overall reading results makes no sense, just imagine if you were asked to take a high level challenging reading test in the foreign language that you took in college or high school. 

Accelerated Growth in the number of ELL Students Covers Up Significant Reading Proficiency Growth in Non -ELL Students. In St. Cloud the number of ELL students tested on the MCA-III grew from 565 by the last two years   More than Forty-Four percent of the Black ELL students tested in 2015 on the MCA-III were added to the testing regimen in the last two years.   The ELL students, many of whom are new to country, or have absolutely no English language support at home score way lower.   So,  if you fold ELL students into the total, when you compare scores year to year, you are counting more and more students taking a really demanding reading test, often with no English language support at home.  We need to grow ELL performance, of course, but its a mistake to mix ELL and non ELL groups and gross them up as if they are the same.

District wide Black-FreeRedLunch ELL students are scoring at a very low rate of reading proficiency as measured by the MCA-III.   But the MCA-III is a terrible measure of reading proficiency for ELL students.    Universities don't use the same test for foreign language speakers to determine their college readiness because they know that asking new English learners to take a highly demanding English language test is unfair.   And the MCA-III is supremely challenging for new English speakers and readers.   Including those students in the test results for English speaking students is statistical malpractice.  It would be like adding 5 really short people to the basketball team and claiming that the coach is an idiot, because half the team can't dunk or their free throw percentage is down.

Black Free and Reduced Lunch Scores 742 versus Statewide. The impact of ELL challenges and the distortions caused by lumping ELL scores with other scores can be illustrated in another way.  If you study the scores of Black free and reduced lunch students, including black ELL students, you will find that the State proficiency rates for these students was 27.4% in 2013 and grew less than two percentage points to 29.1% by 2015.   The comparable rates for St. Cloud has been 14.5% and 17.2 % respectively, which seems to show St. Cloud way behind and really making up no ground.   But that's simply not true.
If you remove ELL students from the totals, then the statewide  proficiency rate (Black, FreeRed Lunch, Not ELL) was 30.0 percent in 2013 and rose 2.7 percentage points to 32.7% in 2014.  That same population in District 742 was seven points behind in 2013 (23.0%) and grew 8.7 percentage points in the two years since 2013 to 31.7 percent, making up almost all the difference.  The growth in low scoring ELL students again masks the significant gains in non-ELL students.  The proficiency rates for  this same category of students at Talahi grew over 16 percentage points: but if you toss in the ELL students, you would cover up this fantastic effort by teachers and staff. 
Proficiency Gains Among English Speaking Students who traditionally score lower in Minnesota.  So let's take a look at the results for free and reduced lunch students who speak English, and let's compare the progress we've made with these students to some other districts.   
 In Minnesota statewide, reading proficiency rate for Free/Reduced Lunch students grew by two percentage points in the last two years.   In St. Cloud, the reading proficiency for that same group grew 5 and on half percent, more than double the rate in the same time period. We're just a tad lower than the statewide average here, but we are  making up ground fast. 
 Now let's take a look at the growth in proficiency for non ELL black students.  I chose Osseo as a comparison district, because it has received high marks for progress in this area, and the two Metro school Districts, St. Paul and Minneapolis.  Our growth in reading proficiency is significantly higher than all three.

In 2013,  the St. Cloud proficiency percentage for non ELL black students on free and reduced lunch was four percentage points above Minneapolis, one percentage point below St. Paul and eight percentage points below Osseo.One of the reasons that our superintendent wanted to introduce major changes is that we weren't satisfied with being a point behind St. Paul and Minneapolis or even with Osseo.  Our goal is to transcend traditional performance, and to do that, we installed major changes.
The results on the MCA-III vindicate the efforts that our superintendent has recommended, and they show that our teachers hard work is paying off.   We are now   ten percentage points above Minneapolis, and just two percentage points below Osseo.  Our reading proficiency rates have grown 6 percentage points faster than Minneapolis, seven percentage points faster than Osseo and ten percentage points faster than St. Paul.
The reading proficiency rate for white students on free and reduced lunch grew by 5 percentage points in St. Cloud in two years.   It stayed stable in Osseo, grew 2 percentage points in Minneapolis.   Our white Free Red reading proficiency rate was slightly below Minneapolis in 2013 and it is a percentage point higher than Minneapolis in 2015.  In 2013, our special education proficiency rate was two points higher than Osseo and ten points higher than Minneapolis.   The special ed proficiency rate in Osseo dropped by four points, in Minneapolis it inched up a half a percentage point.  Ours increased by two percentage points.

This progress gets completely washed away in the statistics when you lump together new to country ELL students.    These students are important to us as well, but trying to assess the progress of English speaking students by tossing in hundreds and hundreds more students who are learning the language is as I have said statistical malpractice.

Talahi too has made remarkable progress.

·         Free and Reduce Lunch Reading Growth.  At Talahi, the percentage of all FreeRed lunch students (white and black) meeting the proficiency cutoff on the Reading MCA-III grew from 16.2% (2013) to 28.8% (2015) or a growth of 12.6 percentage points in two years.  Keep in mind that Talahi's proficiency rates are pulled down by the number of new to country students.   Talahi FreeRed lunch Black ELL students proficiency rate increased eight percentage points, so that it now exceeds the district average for FreeRed Lunch Black ELL students.
·         Talahi Non ELL FreeRed Lunch Black students Reading Growth. Non ELL FreeRed Lunch Black students proficiency percentage grew from 15.7% (2013) to 42.4% (2015), or 26 percentage points.  They started out well below the district wide numbers and rose to rates significantly higher than the district wide numbers.  
      Talahi's Proficiency Reading Proficiency rate, even including ELL students, rose grew almost 8 percentage points in a single year and eleven points in two years time.   

This rate of growth is truly eyepopping.  But its just a beginning.   It is reversing a downward trend that resulted in large part from annual increases in the number of non-English speaking students and growth in students who come to us with reading challenges.  We want to make further progress, but right now its time to recognize that the approaches being implemented are paying off.