The awards, announced last week, are distributed annually to the top eight percent of schools in the state with the highest rate of longitudinal growth on statewide assessments. They recognize growth in both math and language arts, and are based upon the previous three years’ performance of a cohort of students now in the ninth grade.
“It wasn’t a one-time fluke,” Ouray Middle School math and social studies teacher Greg Foy grinned over a cup of Chinese white tea earlier this week. “We’re getting consistent, now. Two in a row.”
Although the award targets the Ouray Middle School in particular, Foy stressed that it really celebrates the groundwork that was laid during the students’ elementary years, as well.
“From our point of view, it’s really a team award,” he said. “We have a really, really strong intervention program that starts right down in the elementary school, right at the very beginning. If they have deficiencies, those deficiencies are being plugged. And if they don’t, we’re challenging them continually.”
And that’s exactly the kind of thing that this particular award is targeting. Not so much high scores across the board, as how much progress each individual student is making across a three-year span of time.
Each year, the Colorado Department of Education sifts student aptitude data using several different performance indicators, including academic achievement and academic growth. It is this kind of rigor and commitment to a strong education reform system that earned Colorado the right, announced earlier this week, to a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.
“For Colorado, an important aspect of the waiver flexibility was around holding schools accountable for student growth, especially with regard to historically disadvantaged subgroups of students such as English language learners, students with disabilities, and students who are not yet proficient,” noted Colorado's Education Commissioner Robert Hammond in a statement earlier this week.
The CDE’s Achievement Indicator reflects how a school's students are doing at meeting the state's proficiency goal: the percentage of students proficient or advanced on Colorado's standardized assessments.
The Growth Indicator, meanwhile, measures academic progress using the Colorado Growth Model. This indicator, as spelled out by the CDE on its website, reflects 1) median growth: how the academic progress of the students in this school compared to that of other students statewide with a similar CSAP score history in that subject area, and 2) adequate growth: whether this level of growth was sufficient for the typical (i.e., median) student in this school to reach an achievement level of proficient or advanced on the CSAP within three years or by 10th grade, whichever comes first.
Ouray Middle School did particularly well in the academic growth area, earning a score of 50 out of 50 possible points over a three-year period, as measured in 2011.
In the Academic Growth Gaps Indicator, which measures the academic progress of historically disadvantaged student subgroups and students needing to catch up, the school also scored highly, earning 23.8 out of 25 possible points.
As far as Foy’s concerned, the growth is really the thing that matters.
“Each student has something to work for, and is learning that work ethic because they are always being challenged, regardless of what level they happen to be performing at,” he said. “If you’re challenging them across the full spectrum, then that leads exactly into what the Governor’s award is looking at, [which] is growth.”
At the Ouray Middle School, student progress is closely monitored throughout the year by means of NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) computerized adaptive tests, which are administered in the fall, mid-year, and at year’s end. Interventions are gauged based on how growth is taking place, as measured by test performance. In effect, each student has an individual learning plan that challenges him or her where they are, within the framework of the core curriculum.
“The district has two things going for it that help,” Foy noted. “We’re small, and we’ve got tools.”
Within the math program, perhaps the most important of these tools is ALEKS, a Web-based, artificially intelligent, educational software program. Through adaptive questioning, ALEKS accurately assesses a student's knowledge and then delivers targeted instructions on the exact topics the student is most ready to learn.
“It gives us a really good tool to support and customize the curriculum,” Foy said.
Students at the Ouray School are using ALEKS as early as the second grade – mostly those on the extreme ends of the spectrum, who are accelerated or behind. It’s used by every student in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade.
ALEKS is useful in particular for math students who are ready to leap to a whole new grade level; at the Ouray School, two or three students at each level are using it to move ahead. One sixth grader has already accelerated into eighth grade, and is 90 percent done with Algebra 1, Foy said.
“It’s also really good over the summer for keeping students from falling backwards,” he noted. “It makes a big difference. It doesn’t have to be a lot; it just has to be enough to keep the rust from forming on the gears.”
Preventing the summer backslide gives teachers an extra six to seven weeks to focus on growth rather than recapitulation, come fall.
“It seems to be working,” Foy said. “And I think that’s the most important aspect of it, is keeping everyone challenged. I think the worst thing that can happen is, when you have a very bright student with a lot of talents, whom we can’t keep challenged. They wind up sliding and believing that they can slide, and sooner or later, it catches up with them. They don’t develop the work ethic.”
On Foy’s watch, students don’t have a chance to slide. He brings a unique perspective, and a tangible sense of real-world urgency, to his work as a teacher at the Ouray Middle School. The Brooklyn native taught for nine years straight out of college, and then worked as a government contractor for 28 years, doing IT support for major military aircraft overhaul and repair. As such, he has a “way different” take on teaching, a profession he came back to only recently.
“I know what the kids need to succeed,” he said. “If you go through all the accelerants, you can do a year’s worth of college before you step out the high school door. You just made yourself $30,000-$40,000. You completely change your economic outlook. It’s all connected. That’s the hard part. Telling that to a 12 year old.”