Preschool Reforms Bring Results

By Gary Chesley

Many school leaders have to explain to their community why test scores aren’t meeting expectations. We were members of that crowd. Our schools were never labeled “failing,” but we were not reaching our potential. We managed to turn that around, not by tinkering here and there to devise instructional patchworks, hoping to close learning gaps, but by committing to core interventions for the struggling student.

By 2004, our elementary schools had a firmly established history of static performance on state standardized tests. Reading scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) averaged about 57 percent at state goal over the course of a decade. Math achievement, as measured by the CMT, topped out at 71 percent and writing flat-lined at about 68 percent. But we rationalized that we had a good reason for this mediocre performance -- the students were changing.

During this period, our schools experienced a significant change in their socioeconomic makeup. The minority student population increased tenfold. These children largely were recent immigrants from South America and Eastern Europe, with limited English skills and no language support at home. Poverty indicators tripled, while the special-needs population hovered at 10 percent.

Student performance typically moved a few points up or down with each testing. Because we didn’t know what caused the results to move in either direction, we constantly tried something new to reach that amorphous “bubble” of students who always tested just points below the state goal. Everything we did felt like a patch.

Also in 2004, I read Delivering on the Promise, a book that described how Washington’s Kennewick School District achieved its goal of having 90 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level. It was written by Kennewick’s then-Superintendent Paul Rosier, and by former Kennewick school board members Lynn Fielding and Nancy Kerr.

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