The 850 kindergarten- through-fifth- grade students at Jefferson County’s Hueytown Elementary School have a message about education: Poverty doesn’t always mean lower scores on standardized tests.
On the ACT Aspire test they took last spring, in most grades and subjects, a higher percentage of the Hueytown students scored in the proficient range than did Jefferson County school district students overall or students statewide.
The accomplishment comes in a school where 58 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals and where students are a diverse mix – 52% are white, 39% are black and 6 percent are Hispanic.
Hueytown Elementary principal Angela Watkins is not surprised.
Teachers and students at her school use and understand data that show exactly where students are in reaching the standards they are expected to learn. But the process is fueled by love as well as numbers.
Watkins attributes success of her students to the teachers at her school. “They’re excellent teachers, they love their students and they love what they do.” she said. “Each of the teachers works daily to come up with plans that will benefit all of the children—not just our strugglers—but all of our children.”
Those daily plans don’t include extended amounts of time spent on testing. Watkins said she trusts her teachers to determine how much testing is needed, and that teachers will pull back on testing if they believe their students are taking too many tests.
Hueytown Elementary’s scores, while better than those of many schools, also indicate the struggles that remain for the school and its students. In fourth-grade math and fifth-grade science, Hueytown students were not ahead of peers, for example. Testing is part of addressing what still needs to be done.
There is a method to testing, though. Three times a year, students in first through fifth grade take GlobalScholar Scantron tests measuring math and reading skills. Kellie Yeager, Data and Accountability Supervisor for Jefferson County schools, said those tests are used to determine at what level a student needs to be challenged, which includes not only remediation but also acceleration.
In addition to GlobalScholar testing, Watkins said her teachers regularly use smaller tests, called formative tests, to determine whether students are getting a full understanding of what is being taught. Those results are then used to adjust instruction, such as re-teaching an area if results showed students didn’t get it the first time around.
Watkins says the use of tests does not mean teaching to the tests. Asked about the issue, she responded: “No, ma’am! We teach standards. It’s a hard job.” Students no longer only memorize facts, she explained. Instead, they are taught how to think about which answer is the best answer when there may be multiple good answers to a problem.
When it comes to how teachers use testing data, Yeager, county data supervisor, emphasized that officials do not compare one school with another and do not use test data to punish. Rather, they highlight areas of strengths while also working to improve weak areas.
Watkins echoed Yeager’s thoughts about data, saying she wants to make sure teachers have “a safe space in which to practice,” even if they mess up. “We want to continue to encourage them to come back to the table and try again,” she said.
During the school’s regular data meetings, Watkins sees her role as principal as asking questions about data but not telling teachers what to do about the data’s messages. “I don’t come in with ‘here’s the answer’. I come in with ‘okay what did you see improvement in this week?’”
Watkins sees tremendous value in empowering teachers to take ownership of teaching and building teacher-leaders within the school, saying the principal can’t do it alone. Her role is to make sure that her school keeps students first, she says, but she credits the school’s leadership team with ensuring successful implementation of strategies to improve education at Hueytown Elementary. That team makes sure that teachers’ voices are heard when new initiatives are planned for the school.
Teaching students how to take control of their own learning and progress in school is another area of focus for Watkins.
Hueytown Elementary is one of only two Jefferson County schools and 127 Alabama schools participating in the Leader in Me, an international program patterned after Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The program, now in the second year of implementation, focuses on goal-setting and teamwork.
The seven habits are: (1) Be proactive, (2) begin with the end in mind, (3) put first things first, (4) think win-win, (5) seek first to understand, then to be understood, (6) synergize, and (7) sharpen the saw.
For Hueytown students, “being proactive” means students keep data binders of their school progress, including attendance, behavior, reading fluency and math fluency. Students share their binders with parents to keep them informed. Yeager said she is impressed with how Watkins’ students “own their data,” adding that if asked, students could likely tell you what goal they are working on and what data they are using to reach that goal. She believes that the Leader in Me has positively contributed to the climate and culture of the school, which is ultimately reflected in annual test scores.
Watkins believes Leader in Me is a crucial piece of improving academic success in her school. “Our students talk about being leaders. They talk about win-win. They talk about working together to reach their goal.” As part of Leader in Me, a student Lighthouse team is seated to speak for students in what happens at school. Students must apply and be interviewed not only by school faculty, but also by community members, to be selected for the team.
Along with teachers and students, Watkins is gives credit to parents for contributing to success. Just prior to spring standardized testing, parents were invited to the school for a look at test data and to ask any questions they had about standardized testing. She wants parents not only to understand what the data says, but also why testing is important.
While her students’ test scores show that struggles still exist, Watkins isn’t afraid of what student test data tells her.
According to Yeager, she has a gift for “convincing adults to push harder and to ask for more. It’s the productive struggle that we need our kids to go through in that classroom. But in order to promote the productive struggle of students, the leader has to promote the productive struggle of the adults, too. She has a great gift for leading that charge.”
Trisha Powell Crain is executive director of Alabama School Connection, a partner with BirminghamWatch in covering Alabama education. See ASC’s full report at www.alabamaschoolconnection.org.