Dalton Public Schools enters its 14th year of the Literacy Collaborative© initiative in 2017-2018. Literacy Collaborative is a comprehensive school reform model designed to improve the reading, writing and language skills of elementary and middle school students. The cornerstone of this project is dynamic, long-term professional development. School-based literacy coordinators are trained in research-based methods and then provide on-site training for the teachers in their schools. The goal of this comprehensive effort is to increase the rate of student learning and to raise the level of literacy achievement of all students.
Continuing Focus on Literacy Still Critical
By Alice Ensley, district literacy coordinator for Dalton Public Schools
Living a literate life is the right of every child. Since its 1886 charter, Dalton, as a community, has valued literacy and wanted the best education for its students. And in 2016, we continue to strive toward that goal of educating students to be contributing citizens of the world. As a product of Dalton Public Schools, a 28-year employee of the district, and a proud parent of two graduates, I know firsthand the successes of our teachers and students.
Recently, however, many in our community have asked for help understanding the latest standardized test scores of our students, in particular our third-grade students. And, rightly so. The scores do not seem to match what we know our students can do in the classroom. Last year, 53.9 percent of our third graders scored in the developing, proficient, and distinguished range on the Georgia Milestones Assessment. When thinking about these scores, there are several key concepts to keep in mind.
First, a number is meaningless in isolation
When you go to the doctor for a physical, you often hear a series of numbers: weight, height, blood pressure. Each of these numbers is true and accurate, but looking at only one indicator does not give you a full picture of your health. We must look at each number, what it measures and does not measure, and how it relates to other assessments.
One grade level does not tell the story
Many people often look to third-grade reading as an important marker. Any Google search of third-grade reading will provide you with correlations between third-grade-reading scores and success, or lack of success, later in life. But as consumers of data, we have to be mindful that correlation does not equal causation.
Increasingly, research suggests that there are many important markers of a student’s success later in life. Learning to read is a complex process that develops over time. And for students of poverty and second language learners, even more time to develop as readers and writers is needed. We may not see some students’ full success until much later in their academic career.
Our state, however, has set a goal that “By 2020, all children in Georgia will be on a path to reading proficiently by the end of third grade”. So how are we doing as we strive to reach this goal?
When looking at numbers, consider what they represent
The scores on the Georgia Milestones test are based on a single administration of a standardized test. Students are asked to read several lengthy passages and then compose a written response to demonstrate their understanding, all on a computer. The Milestones test uses a readability scale (Lexiles) that is based solely on word count and sentence length. Lexiles, however, can be inaccurate and misleading. For example Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel The Sun Also Rises, which is traditionally taught in high school or college, earns a Lexile level of 610 placing it in the state’s second and third grade Lexile band and seemingly indicating its appropriateness for 7-to 9-year-old children.
For the last two years, the scores on this test have not been deemed valid for student promotion or retention or to use for teacher evaluation by the Georgia Department of Education. They do, however, let us know how our students are performing on a certain standardized test as compared to other students taking the same test. To make comparisons across districts or the state, one must look at demographic and economic subgroups. This deep analysis is continuing at our district level.
In Dalton Public Schools, students are more authentically assessed on their reading ability within the daily work of our Reader’s Workshop. The Readers’ Workshop model allows teachers to teach grade-level standards in a whole group setting and then differentiate using small group reading and individual conferencing. Students read books selected by the teacher and books of their choice. Research shows that students make the most progress when they are reading books that they can read and books that they choose (Allington, 2009). Teachers listen to students read individually and assess comprehension through conversation, group discussion, and written response. This, along with Writers’ Workshop and the Language and Word Study block, provides our students with authentic, engaging, and enjoyable reading and writing experiences daily. Based on these authentic classroom assessments, 78.5 percent of ALL DPS third graders were firmly on a path to reading proficiently by the end of third grade last year. 42.5 percent of this group actually exceeded grade-level expectations. Most importantly, all of our students see themselves as readers and writers.
Looking to the future
Dalton Public Schools will continue to look closely at our state test scores and think about what they mean. We have committed to increased professional development in the area of writing about reading. Teachers are also beginning to teach test-taking skills as a genre of reading and writing. Our students deserve to be fully prepared for this new kind of assessment.
Our Dalton Public School students are all on a path to the high quality literate life that is their right and our obligation. When I visit classrooms I am reminded daily that school is more than passing a test. The greater goal of education is helping children grow into adults whose lives are enriched by the reading and writing they do every day and whose futures offer every hope and opportunity for success.