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Schools use fresh data to take new measure of student achievement
0824schools 3
Maria Roman teaches seventh grade Spanish Friday at Gainesville Middle School. - photo by NAT GURLEY

A comparison of median student growth percentiles in each of the EOCT and CRCT testing areas for Hall schools, Gainesville schools and the state of Georgia.


9th grade literature and composition
Georgia: 50
Hall: 56
Gainesville: 54

American literature and composition
Georgia: 41
Hall: 43
Gainesville: 37

Mathematics I
Georgia: 49
Hall: 43
Gainesville: 47

Mathematics II
Georgia: 49
Hall: 49
Gainesville: 52

Coordinate algebra
Georgia: 50
Hall: 49
Gainesville: 49.5

Georgia: 50
Hall: 46
Gainesville: 49

Physical science
Georgia: 51
Hall: 53.5
Gainesville: 29

U.S. history
Georgia: 47
Hall: 51
Gainesville: 57

Georgia: 54
Hall: 45
Gainesville: 40

Reading (CRCT)
Georgia: 55
Hall: 53
Gainesville: 53

English/language arts (CRCT)
Georgia: 47
Hall: 47
Gainesville: 44

Math (CRCT)
Georgia: 50
Hall: 50
Gainesville: 51

Science (CRCT)
Georgia: 52
Hall: 54
Gainesville: 51

Social studies (CRCT)
Georgia: 50
Hall: 58
Gainesville: 57

Data is an important part of school district planning, and there is a lot of it to sort through: Test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates, demographic data and teacher success data, to name a few. The date often is used to create ratings, such as the College and Career Ready Performance Index.

The newest of these ratings is the student growth percentile, which uses testing data from students across the state to measure the rate students improve on standardized tests.

Growth percentiles for 2013 were released earlier this year, and show both the Hall County and Gainesville school districts have large variances in growth across subjects, which doesn’t always correlate with the highest test scores.

The data, which is a factor in evaluations of both teacher performance and district-level college and career readiness, is based on the concept of academic peers — students who score similarly on tests and have taken similar courses. Each student’s growth percentile measures how much that student has improved against the improvement of the academic peer group.

Districts are using this data at the school level to identify practices helping students perform better on standardized tests.

Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville schools, said it provides valuable insight into which schools have the most successful programs, and whether their practices can be emulated at schools struggling to grow.

Bell said that Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School shows the highest growth in the Gainesville system for social studies, in part because of the global focus of the international baccalaureate program.

In looking at how Fair Street teaches social studi es, Bell said, the district hopes to help other schools improve their social studies scores.

“Of course, we wouldn’t ask them all to become (international baccalaureate) schools,” she said, “But we ask them to consider whether they would be able to incorporate these practices within the academic programs they have.”

She said the district is also trying to expand the successful professional development practices at New Holland Core Knowledge Academy, where teachers work collaboratively with other teachers, academic coaches and administrators to gain a deeper understanding of curriculum standards.

“That is a practice that many of our schools are adopting this year,” Bell said.

Kevin Bales, director of middle and secondary education for Hall schools, said he’s also seen a correlation between growth rates and how well teachers understand the standards.

“Time and time again, we see these teachers who are placing a tremendous emphasis on the standards and seeing a tremendous amount of growth,” he said.

Bales said the growth percentiles can also be helpful for teachers who work with a large number of at-risk students who may be less likely to meet expectations on tests, showing teachers if they are progressing.

“It can be very affirming,” he said. “They can say, ‘What I’m doing out here, it is making a difference.’”

In many cases, test scores may be below state averages while growth percentiles are above average.

In Hall County, this was the case in 2013 with the American literature and composition, U.S. history and ninth-grade literature and composition End of Course Tests, as well as the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests for science and social studies.

In Gainesville, scores were below average and growth percentiles were above average in ninth-grade literature and composition, mathematics II and U.S. history on End of Course Tests, and for math on Criterion Referenced Competency Tests.

This also happens in reverse, where scores are above average but growth seems to have stagnated. That means the percentiles can draw attention to areas where there is opportunity for growth, even when tests scores are high.

In Hall, this was the case for the biology EOCT. In Gainesville, it was the case for the coordinate algebra EOCT.

The student growth data is available publicly at the state and district level, but it is available to school officials at the school level, and to officials, students and parents at the student level.

Each of these levels provides information that is useful in a different way. Students can track their own growth, schools can track growth by classroom, and districts can look at which schools are making the most progress.

Georgia Department of Education officials say they have long looked for a better way to measure student growth. Federal Race to the Top funding made the implementation of student growth percentiles possible.

The model is used in about 20 other states.

“It’s a really popular model,” said Melissa Fincher, deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability. “It fills a lot of different needs.”

Fincher said the model reveals more about student progress without requiring additional tests.

“It really paints a more complete picture,” she said. “It shows how students are growing over the course of a year instead of just how they perform on tests at the end of the year.”

The model will also help the department keep track of progress after the switch from EOCT and CRCT to the Georgia Milestones test, which will debut this year. The test will present a new way of measuring achievement, but growth will still be measured using the same method — comparing past and present scores within academic peer groups.

Scores are expected to be lower with the more difficult Milestones test, but student progress still can be measured by looking at how much scores change across peer groups.

Since the model is new for Georgia, districts are still discovering all the ways they can learn from it. They also stress the new growth data does not make achievement any less important.

“It’s just one of the data sets. It’s not the end-all, be-all,” Bales v. “We’re now trying to (use the data to) really get in to see what’s happening to make things turn out they way they do.”

“We’re still learning how this impacts our instruction and impact our plans,” Bell said. “It really does provide a different lens. … I think it will help us evaluate what happens every day in the classroom.”

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