Press Release

Analysis shows varying rates of improvement in low-performing schools

Publication date: Mar 1, 2010

Data from two states demonstrate differing trends in school performance and improvement, provide insights into ESEA reauthorization and strategies for identifying our nation’s “stuck” schools

WASHINGTON (March 1, 2010) –- A report released today by The Education Trust shows that schools often lumped together as ““low performing”” are not all alike. Examining data from reading and mathematics assessments for elementary and middle schools in ten states, the study’s authors found that some low-performing schools remain stuck year after year, and others that started low performing are among the fastest improvers in their states.

Amid conflicting claims about whether we have the know-how and will to reverse the course of troubled schools and at a time when the federal government is vastly increasing its investment in struggling schools, “”Stuck Schools: A Framework for Identifying Schools Where Students Need Change— – Now!”” sheds much-needed light on what’s actually happening—and what is not—in our lowest performing schools.

“”State and local educators and policymakers can apply an analysis like ours right now to better target their interventions. And given the tough budget situation in most states, strategic targeting is more important than ever,”” said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at The Education Trust and coauthor of the report. ““But we also hope this paper will help illuminate the conversation about reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This analysis points to a need to look not just at a school’s performance but at its rate of improvement as well.””

The report – —the first in a four-part “”Stuck Schools Series”” that examines school achievement and improvement patterns – —explores the data on improvement in initially low-performing schools in two states, Maryland  and Indiana. These states were selected as examples because they illustrate quite different improvement patterns that are evident in the eight other states the authors examined. Some of the findings:

  • Based on reading-proficiency rates, 267 elementary and middle schools in Maryland started out in the bottom quartile of performance. Tracking these initially low-performing schools over five years, the study found that 64 percent made gains that put them among  the top-improving schools in the state, 29 percent made  average improvement, and only 7 percent had gains (or declines) that put them among the slowest ““improvers”” in the state.
  • Of the 370 elementary and middle schools in Indiana that started out low performing in reading, 38 percent were high improving, 24 percent were average improving, and 38 percent were low improving.
  • But while Maryland schools overall – —not just the low-performing schools – —showed large gains over the period studied, achievement among all types of schools in Indiana was fairly stagnant.  Thus ““big gains”” in the two states are of very different magnitudes: To be a top gainer in Maryland, a school had to improve by more than 15 percentage points over five years; in Indiana, improvement of more than four percentage points put a school in this category.

“”We need to understand what’s happening in the big gainers and scale up the practices that lead to meaningful improvement for all students,”” said Hall. “”That said, the stuck schools require immediate attention to ensure that their students get a fair shot at a strong education. The need to attend to both types of schools is urgent, but they have quite different needs. And policymakers at every level need to recognize those differences.””

“The report cautions against policies that reward any and all gains among low-performing schools. “Some schools are making slightly higher than average gains but are still stuck among the lowest performers,”” said Natasha Ushomirsky, K-12 data analyst at The Education Trust and coauthor of the report. “”Put simply, while all improvement is good, some improvement is just not good enough when you start as far back as many of these schools.””

Education Trust leaders believe the report can help inform how the U.S. Department of Education crafts and implements programs to assist struggling schools. “”Like status measures alone, improvement alone provides an incomplete measure of what’s really happening within a school. Pairing them provides a richer, more accurate, and ultimately more useful picture,”” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust.

The schools identified as ““stuck”” in the study don’t neatly match those identified for school improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Part of the reason is that the law classifies schools that may be higher performing but where some groups of students are lagging behind. In addition, some states have found ways to let even their lowest performers off the hook.

“”The point here is that we shouldn’’t be looking at the data in just one way,”” said Haycock. “”In the short term, this analysis can help state and local policymakers make smarter investments in school improvement. In the long run, it can help improve federal policy. Both will help make schools better for kids—and that, in the end, is what we are all after, right?””

The second paper in the “”Stuck Schools Series”” will look beyond overall test scores and consider the performance of subgroups of students. The third will explore what the data say about performance and improvement trends across districts. And the fourth will address the public-policy implications of the findings.

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