Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

Raising Minority Achievement: This District Boosted Poor Test Scores by Increasing Class Time, Enhancing Academics and Pinpointing Learning Plans for Each Child. (District Profile)

Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

Raising Minority Achievement: This District Boosted Poor Test Scores by Increasing Class Time, Enhancing Academics and Pinpointing Learning Plans for Each Child. (District Profile)

Article excerpt

It was during the 1998-99 school year when students in Fairfax County, Va., took the state's Standards of Learning test; their results gave the administrators and teachers something to gasp about.

The good news is that about 114 schools in Fairfax County did well. The bad news is that the 20 remaining schools in the county did pretty poorly--or, in other words, performed at a 30th or 40th percentile when they should have been above the 50th percentile. Many of those students were minorities, lived in economically depressed areas and spoke English as a second language.

Superintendent of Schools Dan Domenech made a goal to target those schools and change their results. The program, called Project Excel, kicked off in the fall of 1999 and it was such a hit that this year it received a Leadership for Learning award from the American Association of School Administrators. The award pays tribute to outstanding school districts and their leaders for programs that raise student achievement.

DRIVING FORCE BEHIND EXCEL The three major engines that propel Project Excel are: increased time for learning, enhanced academic programs and school accountability, Domenech says.

Increasing time meant that kindergarten switched from half-day to full days and every elementary student had to attend two extra hours of school on Mondays. Each elementary school identified a specific curriculum focus to pursue, usually to improve either math or reading test scores. Students received computers and software programs to improve literacy.

As part of the accountability plan, every school receives a Schoolwide Achievement Index for each of the core curricula, including math, science, English, history and social science. The index comes from student scores on the Virginia SOL and Stanford 9 TA tests. For the 1999-2000 school year, the goal was to increase the index by five points in each school.

"We had huge results after just one year of implementation," Domenech says. "It's really common sense. I've implemented programs like this in the past. It's a matter of kids. If you give them more time to learn, if you give them the resources and you use the right strategy, then kids are going to learn."

From the spring of 1998 to the spring of 2000, the schools all reached their goal. For third-graders, there was a nearly 9 percent gain in passing in math and a nearly 14 percent gain in science. As for fifth-graders, there was a nearly 34 percent gain in passing in history and writing and a nearly 30 percent gain in math.

"We were very surprised that so much gain was made so quickly," says Gloria McDonell, director of elementary instruction in the district. "I do believe the reason for that gain was that there were certain things that all schools seemed to do. They had much more focused instruction, others analyzed test data and made use of it ... and many of them had a positive learning environment."

SUCCESS IN STEPS The successful practices included all those points, including creating a positive learning environment, identifying a school-wide vision for improving achievement; analyzing test data to determine strengths and weaknesses; assessing student progress and matching instruction to identified needs; and targeting staff development to expand teacher expertise.

Full-day kindergarten was easy to muster support for, Domenech recalls, because most two-parent families were working two jobs and liked that their children were in school most of the day.

Teachers developed an Individualized Educational Plan, which is normally done in special education, for every child. The plan determines where children are academically and figures out what they need in order to help them, Domenech says. For example, children who speak primarily Spanish could be great with math but poor readers, Domenech says.

Targeting the individual needs required a lot of teacher training, he says. …

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