Local school system hopes for better test scores to offset past struggles

Students Zy’taja and Leya work on a project in their classroom at Andrews Elementary School. Photo by Bryce Little.

This article was a semester long product of a look into the local school system in Alamance County, N.C. For the original article, click here.

During the week of May 17, principals, teachers and administration in the Alamance-Burlington School System will be holding their breath.

On May 17 students in grades three through eight will take their End-of- Grade tests, and the county is hoping test scores will improve.

In the past, ABSS has struggled with poor test scores and an overall stigma of subpar academic quality. While some still see it this way, others say the school system is beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

But, this light has always been harder to see for the schools in Alamance County.

Out of the 33 elementary, middle and high schools in the county, as well as one middle college and one alternative education center, 13 of the schools are considered Title One schools. Title
One refers to schools that have a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. In turn, they receive supplemental funding from the United States’ Department of Education.

The schools must make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in order to keep receiving funds, a requirement that was passed under the No Child Left Behind Act signed in 2001 by former President George W. Bush.

In AYP, for every subgroup that a school has, a set percentage of each must pass the reading test and the math EOG tests proficiency targets), according to Dain Butler, director of accountability services for ABSS.

A subgroup must include at least 40 students and is organized by demographics that include white, black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged and limited English proficiency student, Butler said.

Each group is counted twice, once for the math test and once for the reading. They are counted once again for attendance in which 95 percent of each subgroup must be present at the test.

Essentially, then, each subgroup is counted four times. If there are five subgroups in a school, then there are 20 targets. One extra target is always added. In this case, the school would need to make 21 out of 21 targets in order to make AYP.

When a school does not meet its AYP targets for two years in a row, it is considered a school “in school improvement.”

This means that parents have the option to send their child to another school outside their district. A school gets “out of school improvement” if it meets its AYP targets two years in a row, according to Butler.

In addition to serving mostly low income schools, Alamance County receives less federal funding than counties surrounding Alamance.
ABSS Superintendent Randy Bridges said he does not know the reason for this. Every year ABSS submits a local budget to county commissioners.

“We try to communicate our needs, and at the same time, we do the best with what we’ve got,” he said.

Testing tribulations

Since Bridges took his position as superintendent four years ago, he said he has seen vast improvement in testing through eight went up.

“Last year was a phenomenal year for ABSS,” Bridges said.

EOG tests are administered to grades three through eight in math and reading at the end of every academic year. EOC tests are given to all high school grades in the areas of Algebra 1, Algebra II, English 1, Biology, Civics, U.S. History and Science at the end of each semester. Students take each if enrolled in all those classes. Algebra 1, English 1, Biology, Civics and U.S. History are required for graduation, Butler said.

The testing in Alamance County has not come without controversy and many do not feel comfortable with the testing system.

Burlington resident Leah Ann Godwin has two children in ABSS and said she thinks not enough is being done to prepare students for testing, nor is it stimulating enough.

“I don’t think they prepare them through the school year,” Godwin said, noting that her children receive testing review only about a week before the actual tests. “And I think they should make it more fun.”

According to Deborah Long, Elon University education professor and director of the Elon Academy, testing in Alamance County is a crisis that needs attention.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Long said. “There’s so much emphasis on testing that I think for a lot of teachers, the life has been drained out of them. I think there are a lot of really dedicated teachers who are working really hard and really care about the children that they’re teaching, but the whole emphasis on testing has just taken the life out of teaching.”

Associate communications professor Glenn Scott has an 11-year-old son in ABSS. He said that while tests are important, they should not be the only measure of performance.

“I don’t worry that the school system here isn’t testing enough,” Scott said. “I wish that there was more energy put into other attempts to teach our children to think deeply and creatively because I think in the long run, that’s what really makes fine, successful people.”

He said overall, though, more focus is put on testing at a national level than it used to be.

“I’d like to see less ultimate influence on testing and more on the development of thinking and writing skills,” Scott said.

Scott said for the most part, he has seen a great deal of commitment from parents with children in ABSS toward their children’s education. Part of how well children learn, he said, depends on how much of an emphasis parents put on reviewing and learning at home.

“I think what we would all agree upon is that we wish the school district here would see gradual, sustained growth in performance of the students,” he said.

David Cooper, dean of the Elon University School of Education, meets regularly with Bridges to enhance the relationship between the university and the school system. He said while scores are rising, more needs to be done to raise the bar.

“According to the way the state of North Carolina tests students, it’s one of those glass-half-empty, glass-half-full kind of scenarios,” Cooper said. “If you look at the ABSS data from one perspective, you would say there’s progress particularly in the elementary areas at End-of-Grade scores. The glass-half-empty scenario is that the bar for that is set pretty low. Passing scores are not terrifically high.”

He said the same of the system meeting the federal guidelines through AYP goals.

“The majority of schools are meeting the federal guideline … The majority of ABSS schools are making that AYP status,” Cooper said. “(But) in one sense, you can say, yes, they’re meeting the federal standard mostly, and each year most schools meet that standard. On the other hand you could say, well, is that a standard you really want to aspire to?”

Why the low scores?

According to several members of the ABSS administration, though, the reason test scores have been low in the past is because of a re-norming of EOG tests in recent years.

The math EOG test was re-normed in the 2005-2006 school year, and the reading EOG test was re-normed in the 2007-2008 school year.

When these tests are re-normed, they tend to be made more rigorous, Butler said.

“Any time a test becomes more rigorous or challenging, typically we see a drop in our overall scores,” he said. “It doesn’t mean our students are doing worse, per se, or they didn’t do as well as they did last year, it just means that on this new, more challenging test, the scores are not going to indicate what we saw the year before because this is a different test. You’re comparing apples to oranges.”

The state of North Carolina hopes every school has at least 60 percent of its students pass the EOC and EOG tests and they make progress. If progress occurs, the school has made growth.

John Swajkoski, the principal at Turrentine Middle School, said when the tests were re-normed, he saw a 10-20 percent drop in Turrentine students’ scores.

“Everybody took a major hit,” he said. “So educators understood the fluctuation in test scores, but the general public I don’t think did.”

Last year, Turrentine did not make its AYP goals. It met 28 out of 29 subgroups, but because Turrentine is not a Title One school, it will not be affected by the option to have children attend another school outside their designated district.

“The public would see it as ‘well Turrentine didn’t meet their AYP goals,'” he said. “Well no, we didn’t. But if you were a basketball player and hit 28 out of 29 free throws, that’s pretty doggone good.”
Martha Caulder, principal of Andrews Elementary School in Burlington, said her students’ scores took the same dive.

“We continue to revamp the tests … to fit what the state is expecting of all schools in North Carolina,” she said. “A lot of people don’t like it, but principals and staff alike just have to remember education is constantly changing. This is the standard that has been put before us, and this is what we have to do to meet it.”

Finding a solution

Both the Turrentine and Andrews schools are making strides to combat the EOG test re-norming and are seeing improvement.

“We know that students need to be much more engaged in the lessons,” Swajkoski said. “One of the things Turrentine is trying to do is to focus in on student engagement.”

Turrentine’s most recent approach has been the “Strive for five, be great with eight” initiative.

“If we can raise each individual child’s test scores by five points, we’ll improve in our scores,” he said. “If we raise them by eight points, we’ll have a shot at being a school of distinction, which is our goal.”

Turrentine has also taken advantage of the Literacy First program, in which all ABSS middle schools are participating. In the program, teachers are trained in teaching specific concepts, such as phonics, word skills and word patterns in depth.

Student engagement is the main staple at Andrews, too.

“We’re doing a lot,” Caulder said. “At this school it’s all about making sure the students are growing, the teachers are motivating students and students are engaged.”

One part of the engagement is the Little Leaders program. The program, which is taken advantage of by four ABSS schools including Andrews, provides students with the opportunity to have the same teacher for four years from kindergarten through third grade.

The children attend school on a year-round basis and are able to go on field trips in the community. The program began last summer, and ABSS administration members are eager to see the impact it may have, Caulder said.

Last year, Andrews made all of its 21 AYP targets.

“Your job as a teacher is to make sure students are learning and growing, regardless of the testing umbrella that hangs over everybody’s head,” Caulder said. “You still have to make sure you are coming to school to do the job you were hired to do, which is growing children and being motivators of children.”

Making progress

The elementary and middle schools are not the only ones making strides to improve. In 2006, Cummings High School in Burlington was threatened to be shut down by the state because of the lack of quality.

Lynn Briggs was hired as one of the co-principals for Cummings, and every position, including the janitorial staff, was re-interviewed. Curriculum content coaches were also hired.

“We decided that in order for us to be successful, we had to build a strong, stable staff because the turnover here was unbelievable and the staff was not as strong as it needed to be,” said Briggs, the current principal of Cummings. “We also had to change the culture here because the culture was ‘come to the mall and have a good time.’ Test scores were not what they needed to be.”

Briggs said Cummings changed the culture by setting boundaries and high expectations as well as hiring well-qualified teachers. Since then, the school has made vast improvements, Briggs said.

“The first year, test scores dropped,” Briggs said. “Anytime you change the culture of a school, that’s what happens initially. Every year since then, they’ve shown steady growth.”

Cummings still has a way to go, though. According to Briggs, 30 percent of students read at a seventh grade reading level or higher. Cummings also does not offer any in-school Advanced Placement classes because of lack of interest from students, Briggs said.

Cummings does allow students to go to nearby schools to take AP classes or students can take them online through the North Carolina Virtual Public High School.

The Elon Academy

Another helpful entity that has improved Cummings’ achievements is the Elon Academy. The Elon Academy began in 2006 through a partnership with Cummings and Elon University when Cummings was threatened with closure.

The three-year program focuses on an intense college initiative for students with significant financial need and/or no family history of college. The program comprises three four-week residential summer experiences and year-round monthly Saturday programs.
Long became the director and began recruiting Alamance County students for the program in the fall of 2006.

About 2,000 letters were sent out to every Alamance County high school freshmen, and about 100 students completed an application, she said.

The first Elon Academy class began in 2007 with 26 members. These students have now been accepted to universities such as Radford, Wingate, Swarthmore, Middlebury and Smith. They will graduate from high school this month.

“We have these young people whom these colleges, as we hoped for, are really fighting over,” Long said.

Currently, the Elon Academy works with seven ABSS schools.
In addition, Cummings also participates in the “Go 4 College” program that allows Cummings students to visit Elon’s campus, sit in on classes and talk to other students.

“The way out of the cycle of poverty is by education, I think,” Long said. “If we can start getting some of these students who are growing up in high poverty situations and get them an education so they can live a more fulfilling life … when they have children, their children will be educated. It’s a long-term solution.”

Cooper said ABSS needs to set the bar higher.

“I think what ABSS could do to help itself is to aim higher,” he said. “To adopt a view that is kind of like what Elon (University) has adopted, which is ‘why not be great?’ Why settle for adequate when great is within reach?”

Moving forward

One way to move from adequate to exceptional, Bridges said, is to adopt a new model of education, not just within ABSS, but globally.
“The traditional model doesn’t work for all kids,” he said. “What students need, really, is very simple: they need more time and they need more help. We have to figure out ways to address those two things.”

Bridges said one way to replace the traditional model of teaching that has been used for years is to come up with more engaging solutions.

“Kids are smarter. They know more,” he said. “Hopefully in my career, before that’s over, we will make some significant changes in the model, the delivery system that we will provide to these kids. It’s the same one they used when I was in school, and the two don’t match.”

According to Bridges, the key word in this puzzle is innovation. Technology, he said, is something kids need more of in the school system.

Currently, ABSS uses E-Rate money given by the federal government for special rates on telephone services and classroom technology to install new equipment.

Turrentine has a wireless campus, and each teacher has been given a laptop. The school is currently looking into getting a SMART Board, an interactive computerized board that students can work with.

Andrews has eight SMART Boards: one for every grade in kindergarten through fifth, one for gifted classes and one for English as a second language classes. All Andrews teachers have PC desktop computers as well.

Caulder says it’s not enough, though.

“In my perspective as a principal, Andrews needs to raise the bar on technology,” she said.

She is hoping to get more SMART Boards in the classroom.

“Most of the time schools have to be real creative with their money in regard to how you can get more technology,” Caulder said. “That’s something we’re trying to do here.”

Briggs has the same feeling for Cummings. The school has two computer labs, three mounted SMART Boards, one mounted active board and are in the process of obtaining another SMART Board.

“We’re working towards more technology,” Briggs said. “There’s just not enough money to keep up with it. Any teacher that requests something, we try to honor it.”

Briggs said it is difficult to compete with other schools in technology. Kids are coming into Cummings with more technological skills, and Cummings must try to fit that need. She said any leftover funds she has at the end of the year will go toward technology.

Bridges said ABSS is always trying to look for grants to obtain more technology in the schools.

“We are not where we need to be technology-wise, and resources have been scarce in that arena,” Bridges said. “(But)I think we’ve been able to make some really good progress in the last three or four years. We have probably put more emphasis on technology in my time here than previously and that’s driven by the students.”

Bridges said that with new innovation and increasingly engaging curriculum, ABSS will continue to do better.

“The kids are expanding their knowledge and we can’t be a barrier to that,” he said. “We need to support that.”

In addition, he said leadership is improving and teacher turnover rate is not as high. He hopes scores for the tests that take place next week will continue to improve as they did last year.

“We try to operate under the mindset that it’s always about continuous improvement,” he said. “How can we get better because we know there is room for improvement in everything that we do … Do we have much work to do? Of course. But I feel really good about the direction that we’re headed.”


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