By Linda Robinson
No matter how your school scored on “the test” last year, as a school leader you should never be satisfied! Whether you did not meet AYP and know that you need to make it this year, or you did meet AYP but are still below state averages in one or more subjects, or even if you made AYP and are above state averages in every subject but know that you should have many more students in your state’s highest category, you need a plan to ensure your school’s growth to the next level.
First, and most importantly, you must remember that curriculum, instruction, and assessment are but one element of effective schooling. As the Breaking Ranks framework illustrates, attention must also be given to personalization and collaborative leadership because it is only when all three elements intersect that increased student performance can occur. Looking at these three categories, let’s examine what you can do in each of these areas to ensure increased performance for all your students.
“The challenge is getting all staff members to believe in schools’ ability to intervene positively in a student’s life and to act on this in a sustained, concerted, systematic manner.” —Failure is NOT an Option, pg. 99
In the area of personalization, principals, along with their Student Intervention Teams, need to have a clear list of those students who have not met the state standards. In addition, these same leaders need to know who, according to their benchmarks and progress, are in a position to pass this year if given additional instructional support and encouragement and who (hopefully everyone) can improve their scores—even if they cannot meet the standards at this point. These students should be the focus of both an instructional piece (which will be discussed later) but equally as important should be the focus of an “I Believe in You” approach from at least one adult in the building. This emotional/relational support should include a number of pieces. First of all, it must be frequent and real. As the testing period draws closer, the adult should see the student for at least 5–10 minutes daily. Conversation can include discussing why the teacher knows the student can succeed, talking about strategies to use when the student begins to get frustrated or tired during testing, reviewing what the student has been working on in intervention time or tutoring, and perhaps planning for a celebration when the scores are received. Second, it must include a plan for taking the test, including strategies such as marking problems as “+” (know this is right), “?” (need to come back to this question and be sure), or “-” (I don’t have a clue how to do this problem). Students need to know how many questions must be answered correctly in order to pass (or in order to reach the excelling level) so that they can count their “+’s” and then know how many “?’s” they must get right to clearly meet the mark! Giving students the knowledge of “how to work the test” empowers them and allows them to understand what “doing better on the test” means.
It is important to understand that your more reluctant students often don’t do well on the test for a variety of reasons—they are not motivated to do so, they give up easily, they get frustrated when they see others finishing so quickly, etc. Spend some time with your team leaders, counselors, and other key players and discuss these students one by one. For whom will they work? Most students have a favorite teacher who they will work for even when they will not work for anyone else. If at all possible, arrange for students to be placed with that teacher for testing. Consider grouping the student with their mentor if a good relationship has been developed or, if regrouping seems to be too big a task, have a plan where mentor teachers can “walk through” the testing area to support students with a pat on the back. Remember that something as simple as rearranging the testing groups can pay big dividends for the more reluctant students.
Another possibility for grouping is to put the most “difficult” 10-12 students in a grade level with a strong teacher who loves these students and is respected by them as well. Give them a large space so they can stand, sit, stretch out—a place where their distracting behaviors are far enough from the next student to not bother anyone. One school called this group their “love bugs” and the teachers assigned to them were also their mentors and met with the group regularly throughout the year in order to build relationships and establish expectations for testing.
To further the personalization of your school as it relates to testing, school leaders can divide the list of students who need to pass the test (or all students if possible) and personally have a 2-5 minute conversation with them about their belief in the ability of the student to do a good job on the test and to offer support and encouragement in the weeks leading up to the testing. The fact that a principal or assistant principal will take time to have a personal conversation with the student impresses and encourages the student and allows the student to see that administrators are truly concerned with their academic success. It also gives the administration the opportunity to understand some of the issues that might be affecting the student as they go into testing.
Personalization is also important with the families of your students—even when you know that their ability to support their student academically is limited. Parents need to know the dates for testing and how important it is that their student be there and be ready to test. Let your parents know if the school is able to offer free breakfast and snacks for all the students and if lunches will be served in classrooms or at different times. Let them know that you believe that their student will be able to improve their scores and how much you appreciate their support. Use this as an opportunity to build a connection by sending a special “testing information” newsletter or e-mail.
Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
“Schools must come to regard time as a tool rather than a limitation.” —Learning by Doing, pg. 77
With only a short time left until the test, it is easy to say that “there is just not enough time.” However, the challenge is to use the time you have to the maximum! In the area of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, consider the following:
· What information do your latest benchmarks give you? Based on the areas tested, where does the school need to focus their energy? Is it on all subjects tested or on one or two subjects where the scores are particularly low? Or, should the focus be on a particular subgroup for one or two tested areas? With only a few weeks left, a clear focus on data is needed with an understanding of where the biggest payoff will be. This will help you know where to direct the energy.
· In an area of greatest concern for all students, consider developing an instructional blitz for that area. Use your lead teachers to develop a 15-30 minute per day “review” of the critical objectives or performance standards that will be on the test. Provide these materials to all teachers in the subject area along with professional development that is explicit on how these “lessons” are to be used. Be sure that the students are seeing problems in the format of the test and that teachers not only have students practice the skill but review with them the steps needed to get the correct answer and that teachers ensure that students are successful on each skill each day. Short common assessments each week can give feedback to the teacher, the department, and the leadership team so that everyone knows where more time might be needed. An instructional blitz will help both the students who are trying to pass the test and those who are trying to move into the highest category.
· During the last few weeks, consider enhancing the instructional focus by using your most successful teachers to help all students in a grade level. This can be done by pairing teachers who consistently help their students pass the state exam with new teachers or those who are not as successful. Both teachers can work together with a larger group, or teachers can switch kids during the week so that every student spends time with the successful teacher.
· Based on the data, have the Student Intervention Team define tutoring groups for both levels 2 and 3 of the intervention pyramid so that students are in groups depending on their need for intervention—ideally seven to ten per group at level 2 and two to three at level 3. Also, level 2 groups may only need to meet for 30 minutes two or three times each week, while level 3 groups need to meet daily for 40–50 minutes each. In trying to accomplish this, consider planning the intervention within the school day. Utilize homeroom time, advisory time, study hall time or, if absolutely necessary, consider pulling them from non-tested classes for part of the period.
· In all areas of curriculum and instruction, use time to the maximum and feel the urgency of what can be done in those last few weeks to help all students “grow their scores!”
“There are very few things in life that we can claim to have accomplished without the help of others. In leadership, nothing that we achieve is singular. Nothing.” —A Leader’s Legacy, pg. 45
Success on the test requires that everyone in the school be rowing in the same direction. In high-performing schools every teacher views themselves as a leader and it is the principal’s job to build this collaborative vision and belief that everyone’s role is an important one.
In the area of collaborative leadership, it is critical for everyone on the staff to see that they play a role in their students’ success, even if they teach a “non-tested” subject such as orchestra, PE, or theater arts. The truth is that these teachers are often more successful than core teachers in reaching the less academic students. Giving every elective teacher a key objective or student expectation that fits with their curriculum to teach and practice is a way to help all teachers feel like they are a part of schoolwide achievement and can also help core teachers to feel supported in their work. If you group your students for testing, consider carefully what students the special area teachers will be testing and who they can mentor in the weeks prior to testing. Many schools offer after-school or Saturday tutoring in the weeks immediately prior to the test and offer coaching in basketball skills (or other sports or interest areas) following the tutoring. This will encourage many students to come who would not otherwise attend.
Using the strength of the Student Intervention Team to share ideas for successful classroom practices at each faculty meeting often allows for additional buy-in from more staff members. With only a few weeks to go, you want every teacher to be sure they have done all they can do to help their students succeed.
And finally, the leadership team of each school can make the conscious decision that every word spoken about testing will be framed in a positive way. Even though this is sometimes difficult, make a commitment to hold each other accountable! Practice what you will say in response to a colleague who says, “This test is stupid” or “I don’t know why we have to spend all day to test when we know these kids can’t pass.” If the leadership of the school believes, then many more will begin to believe. Listen to your language and stay positive.
Even with only four, five, or six weeks until the test, there is still time to make a difference! Make a plan for the last few weeks that include all three components of the Breaking Ranks framework, and then work your plan! Bring everyone on board and do it with enthusiasm. Add the personal element as you conference with your students and with your teachers. And always make your decisions based on the question: “Is it best for the child?”
“When people see tangible results, however incremental at first, and see how the results flow from the overall concept, they will line up with enthusiasm. People want to be a part of a winning team. They want to contribute to producing visible, tangible results. When they feel the magic of momentum, when they begin to see tangible results – that’s when they get on board.” —Good to Great, p. 175
Blankstein, Allan. Failure is NOT an Option, Corwin Press, 2004
Collins, Jim. Good to Great, HarperCollins, 2001
Dufour, Richard, et al. Learning by Doing, Solution Tree, 2006
Kouzes, Jim &Posner, Barry. A Leader’s Legacy, Jossey-Bass 2006 Linda Robinson heads LWR Consulting and prior to her retirement as principal, used all of these strategies and more in her Texas middle school. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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