Big reform bet leads to ISAT improvement

Knowing test scores weren’t where they needed to be, Falls Valley Elementary School hired a coach and began to think of the school in terms of a team.

This year, the Bonneville Joint School District elementary school in Idaho Falls hired longtime educator Rodd Rapp to fill a new position as school achievement specialist.

Rapp, who taught first grade for 16 years and also worked as Title I director in neighboring Jefferson County, made it his mission to help students grow and improve their Idaho Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT) results.

Tom Gauchay
Tom Gauchay

Under the leadership of superintendent Chuck Shackett and Falls Valley Principal Tom Gauchay, Rapp helped all 540 students in first through sixth grades develop their own academic plans.

Rapp became their academic coach by meeting with each student individually on a quarterly basis to monitor their progress and update their academic plans.

“Rodd became their best friend,” said Gauchay, noting that students believed in the idea and were able to recite their own personal goal from memory.

The school also bolstered its Professional Learning Communities team and refined its Response to Interventions program this year, building in a half-hour block four days a week to focus on student achievement.

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Help is available for students who need remediation or just extra practice, as well as students who excel and wish to push ahead.

The idea is to help all students improve, not just those who struggle.

On the day when interventions weren’t offered, educators devoted time to tracking student performance.

The school sought a greater degree of parental buy-in by staging parent nights and sending home sample ISAT questions with the idea families would work on one question a night until test day.

With the state moving to Idaho Core Standards next year, and the high-stakes Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests following in 2014-15, students, parents and educators need to step up now, Gauchay said.

End of  year ISAT results show growth in the following areas:

  • In third grade, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of students graded as proficient or advanced in language arts and math, along with a 4 percent increase in math.
  • In fourth grade, 17 percent more students earned proficient or advanced results in language arts, along with 6 percent more in math and 2 percent more in reading.
  • In fifth grade, the average reading score was 216, 12 points above the proficient threshold, while the average math score was 223 – just one point shy of the advanced threshold.
  • In sixth grade, there was a 9 percent increase in students graded as proficient or advanced in language arts, along with a 6 percent increase in both reading and math.

Rapp and educators were especially proud of the average sixth-grade math score of 237 – just one point shy of the advanced threshold for the seventh grade.

Standardized tests don’t normally lead to cartwheels, but Falls Valley made an exception this year.

To celebrate, the school staged pride assemblies quarterly. Now that final ISAT results are available, individual grade levels are spending the final week of the year celebrating.

Rodd Rapp
Rodd Rapp

“I haven’t seen this level of excitement and energy before in an elementary school,” Rapp said. “The biggest change we saw was the fact students took so much ownership of their own learning this year.”

The reform was so successful that Bonneville plans to expand the academic coach program to each of its 14 elementary schools next year.

Each academic coach will work with two schools. Ten elementary schools plan to use Title I funding to pay for the positions, Rapp said, while the district plans to use some of the $21 million that the Legislature freed up for professional development and merit pay to fund positions at the other schools.

One way Rapp and Falls Valley educators monitored students’ performance throughout the year was through the Silverback Learning Solutions Mileposts software system. The program, which the Bonneville district bought for $55,000 this year, allowed educators to track and manipulate data for individual students, classrooms or grade levels to monitor student achievement and identify pupils who were falling behind.

Gauchay said it took a building-wide commitment to achieve growth. He credited teachers, parents and students with buying in.

Still, there was some initial resistance to using data and aiming for such a large-scale reform.

“Rodd has given teachers more confidence in their ability to mine data and look at intervention as well,” Gauchay said. “There was a little reluctance to do that, especially among more seasoned teachers. But he has shown them how to access the reports.”