Pocatello-Chubbuck relies on a ‘tapestry of strategies’ to defy the odds

POCATELLO — Pocatello-Chubbuck School District Curriculum Director Chuck Orr gazed at his computer screen last spring as it updated his district’s latest round of standardized test scores.

“I like to watch the results as they come in,” he said, adding that state-sponsored tests can provide a glimpse into student learning.

Orr wasn’t the only one fixated with results. After Idaho’s 2016 Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) results were released, he learned that someone else had been monitoring scores — from a computer 235 miles away in Boise.

That person was State Department of Education Assessment Coordinator Nancy Price, who took note of some unique upward trends in Pocatello-Chubbuck:

  • Scores were above state averages in every grade level.
  • Student proficiency went up in every grade level.
  • Scores more than doubled the average state improvement in average improvement per grade.

“I am yet to find another district that met that criteria,” Price said.

The state recently released the spring 2016 test results. In the second year of SBAC testing, statewide scores improved slightly in English language arts and math, and from third grade through high school. Pocatello-Chubbuck outperformed most other East Idaho districts, and attributes its success to an array of strategies, including a heavy emphasis on teacher training, student writing prompts and even video games.

“I feel really good about what our teachers and students are doing here,” he said.

The latest round of the SBAC followed a well-established relationship between student test scores and poverty. Many of Idaho’s higher-performing schools and districts also have low poverty rates. However, Pocatello-Chubbuck exceeded state scores on the SBAC — while the district’s poverty rate mirrors the state’s average.

A closer look at the numbers

In 2016, Idaho’s average math proficiency on the SBAC climbed two percentage points to almost 42 percent, and ELA improved statewide by almost that same amount, settling at just under 53 percent.

For the most part, East Idaho’s improvements reflected the rest of the state’s, with 16 of 24 charters and districts improving in math and 18 of 29 improving in ELA. However, East Idaho schools lag just behind those throughout the rest of the state. Overall, East Idaho is about 3 percentage points behind other districts in terms of ELA proficiency and 2.5 percentage points behind in math.

Most of East Idaho’s big districts were on par with the rest of the state in terms of math proficiency and improvement, with Pocatello-Chubbuck ahead of the pack:

  • Pocatello-Chubuck improved by 14.7 percentage points to reach 48.4 percent proficiency.
  • Madison improved by 2.4 percentage points to reach 46.6 percent proficiency.
  • Bonneville improved by 1 percentage points to reach 41.3 percent proficiency.
  • Idaho Falls improved by 9.8 percentage points to reach 37.5 percent proficiency.
  • Blackfoot improved by 14.9 percent percentage points to reach 28.5 percent, still well under the state average of 42 percent.

Similar improvements surfaced on the ELA. Again, Pocatello students finished on top:

  • Pocatello-Chubbuck improved by 7.9 percentage points to reach 60.1 percent proficiency.
  • Bonneville improved by 6.4 percentage points to reach 56 percent proficiency.
  • Madison improved by 14 percentage points to reach 51.2 percent proficiency.
  • Idaho Falls improved by 4.5 percentage points to reach 50.6 percent proficiency.
  • Blackfoot improved by 4 percentage points to reach 39 percent proficiency, still well under the state’s 53 percent proficiency rate.

A tapestry of strategies

Orr said a “tapestry of strategies” account for the district’s success, including teacher training aimed at developing coursework reflective of the SBAC and its Common Core emphasis.

Teachers participate in week-long Common Core trainings in June, which the district has sponsored since 2011. Educators with a solid, in-depth understanding of the Common Core standards create “mini tests” during the trainings, with questions resembling those on the SBAC.

During the school year, teachers embed the mini tests into their teaching units, so kids become familiar with the types of questions they’ll see on the SBAC in the spring.

Teachers also develop curriculums around these tests and focus on writing assignments, a hallmark of SBAC questions. On a weekly basis, students watch short videos and read prompts, and then write about both. Like many questions on the SBAC, responses are graded based on how well they use evidence to support their claims.

Other training opportunities include regular meetings aimed at aligning curriculum across the district. Every other Monday, all teachers collaborate per grade level to align their tests and share what’s working and what’s not.

In addition, roughly half the district’s teachers attend eight optional training sessions throughout the school year. These “camp” sessions provide time for teachers of the same grade level to meet for two hours and engage in further planning.

At the camps, teachers well versed in Common Core serve as unit developers for grade-level teams. Other teachers provide feedback for improvements, and each group makes decisions about how to make the best changes.

The district provides professional development money to teachers who attend the camps. If they attend all eight sessions, they get a $325 bonus.

Teachers also use technology to carry out the district’s emphasis on writing.

Like most schools throughout the district, Ellis Elementary School has a one-to-one computer initiative. Ellis students access most of their classwork on Google Classroom, where they post reading and writing assignments on a weekly basis.

Fifth-grade teacher Sherry VanEvery estimates that her students spend 70 to 75 percent of their class time working on computers.

That much time is meaningful, she said, because students are “drawn to technology” and it frees her up to read essays and pinpoint those struggling. As a result, students get a lot of individualized instruction, Van Every said.

“I think so many of them learn best that way. I can visit with most of them while the others stay busy working at their desks or on their computers,” she said.

VanEvery added that the district’s emphasis on writing is also “spilling over” into the math SBAC, which requires “explanations and proof.” Rather than providing numeric answers alone, the test often requires students to explain how they arrived at a particular answer.

Websites such as prodigygame.com, a free online math game for first- through third-graders, also reinforces students’ understanding of math. The site hosts a video game that lets players advance through levels only after they answer math questions correctly. (The website touts activities that help students “get ready for standardized testing.”)