No matter how excellent the teaching force at ALBA School on Milwaukee's south side, third-graders might never score well in reading on the state standardized achievement test.
More than 70% are new immigrants and learning to speak English, so results from the state exam taken at the beginning of third grade reflect a young class's bumpy first attempts at understanding literacy in a new language.
But by fourth and fifth grade? ALBA is rocking it, according to new state-issued school report cards that for the first time bring public attention to schools helping kids make faster-than-average academic progress from one year to the next.
The new calculations for growth in reading and math are not a perfect science, but they are a welcomed point of data for many urban schools serving large populations of low-income and/or minority students who walk in the door behind-grade level.
A Journal Sentinel analysis of the new data illuminates how some schools are helping kids make impressive gains from year to year, even if overall achievement remains low.
"It's really good to see a measure now for reading growth with our kids," said Brenda Martinez, who helped start ALBA, a nonunion Milwaukee Public Schools charter school at 1712 S. 32nd St. "That's a place where we gained a lot of points."
The new growth measure is important because achievement scores on a standardized test such as the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination generally move in predictable directions based on a school's demographics: Scores tend to rise as schools become whiter and more affluent; scores tend to fall as schools serve greater numbers of students of color, with disabilities and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Consider Hayes Bilingual School, a traditional K-5 in MPS. The school, at 2431 S. 10th St., is more than 97% Hispanic and more than 98% low-income. Its overall reading achievement score on the new report card is 8.6 out of 50, far below the state average elementary school reading score of 28.5.
It was ranked "meets few expectations" on its new report card.
But among elementary schools in the Milwaukee area with poverty rates of 90% or more, Hayes had one of the highest growth scores in reading, meaning it propelled more kids toward proficiency from third to fourth grade and then fourth to fifth grade than the average elementary school in the state. The measurements are based on fall 2010 and fall 2011 WKCE test scores.
Principal Yolanda Hernandez-Garcia said the school is eager to boost that overall report card score of 62.2 out of 100; they're less than a point away from being in the "meets expectations" category. But she said she was pleased students who stayed with them over two or three years were showing improvement.
The new report cards released by the Department of Public Instruction this month are part of Wisconsin's new accountability system for public schools. They aim to raise expectations and also give a more nuanced picture of school performance. They take the place of requirements under No Child Left Behind that judged schools almost entirely on achievement, or what percentage of students scored proficient or advanced in reading and math each year, with a goal of 100% proficiency.
The difference between achievement and growth could be illustrated by two aerobics classes: one filled with mostly athletic types, the other with those who are mostly overweight and out-of-shape.
Initial measurements would suggest one class is much healthier than the other. That's the snapshot-in-time fall WKCE test score.
Changes in a year
But measurements taken a year later for regular attendees might show some dramatic, Biggest Loser-style improvement for the overweight class. The athletic class would still be fit, but few may have dropped much weight. The same is true in schools: high-achieving students tend to gain few points over a single year of growth.
Capturing that movement is the new WKCE growth score. Schools get credit in the calculation for moving more kids into the proficient and advanced range; they lose credit if kids fell behind over that time.
The measure has limitations. Growth on the WKCE cannot be calculated at the high school level because the state exam is only administered once, in 10th grade. There are also better tests and better statistical analyses for measuring student progress over time.
No growth measure for the high schools on the new report cards means more emphasis is placed on overall achievement. So schools that receive many freshmen performing behind grade level will continue to look lousy, because those underperforming freshmen tend to also score poorly on the state test at the beginning of 10th grade.
That's the case with Community High School, a small charter school within the MPS family. Its new report card score is 27.7 out of 100, or "fails to meet expectations."
But on a different progress test that all MPS schools administer three times a year at all grade levels, Community, 6700 N. 80th St., is showing more growth in reading and math from ninth to 12th grades than other high schools in the system.
"We're moving a lot of kids from fifth to 10th grade," Community High School teacher Jason O'Brien said. "We are improving their literacy and it's at a greater pace than other high schools are."
Politically, O'Brien acknowledges it's tough. If a school doesn't have students performing on grade level, some are reluctant to think it's a good school, no matter how much growth, positive attendance rates or positive school culture it embodies.
But for O'Brien and others, even the conversation about growth is a start, whether it's a part of the new report cards or from a different test.
"At least now we can say, 'Look, we're doing this,' " O'Brien said. ___
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