Proficiency Is a Floor, Not a Finish Line
At a time when gaps at the advanced level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are widening, Laurel Street Elementary School’s high rates of advanced performance are bucking the trend. At this large public school in Compton, Calif., staff are not just getting students merely over the proficiency threshold; they’re also ensuring that students stretch academically by pushing large numbers into the advanced category. How does Laurel Street, and other high-poverty schools like it, achieve these results? We talked to them to find out.
First, to understand the magnitude of Laurel Street’s success, let’s put it in context. We know that fourth and eighth-grade gaps in reading and math at the advanced level have been widening over the past decade. And the most recent wave of NAEP data show these patterns persist. For example, in fourth-grade math, the percent of low-income students reaching advanced has more-or-less stagnated over the past decade, increasing from just 1 to 2 percent between 2003 and 2013. Meanwhile, the percent of higher-income students reaching this level has increased dramatically from 6 to 14 percent.
Laurel Street is a K-5 school where roughly 9 in 10 students are students of color and low-income, and nearly two-thirds are English-language Learners. But its rates of advanced performance have improved drastically over the past decade, and now far outstrip the state. In fifth-grade math, for example, the percent of Laurel Street students reaching the advanced level has increased from 5 percent in 2004 to 50 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, in 2012, just a third of fifth-graders throughout the state performed at this level.
Principal Frank Lozier says that goal-setting is at the root of this success. Rather than focusing only on the “bubble kids” who are on the cusp of proficiency, Laurel Street educators set a goal for each student based on his or her incoming level of achievement. Still, the goals are always ambitious, typically set within the proficient or advanced range.
To ensure students meet these goals, the school employs a student grouping system designed to accelerate learning for students who are most behind, while still pushing those who are on or above grade level. Students are semi-homogenously grouped by ability in classrooms, such that each grade level contains an accelerated class, an intermediate class, and an intensive support class. The accelerated classes are the largest in size, and students are expected to complete most of their work independently. “(The accelerated classes) become the pacesetters,” Lozier says. “The other two classes sprint to catch up with accelerated classes over time.”
Additionally, Laurel Street prioritizes writing — in all subjects, including math. Writing instruction does not only encapsulate mechanics, but also structure, language, and reader engagement.
The teachers at Laurel Street have vertically aligned the writing curriculum, so that students are able to independently display key skills at the end of each year. For example, the expectation for kindergarten students used to be to write a unique sentence by themselves without much help from their teacher. But teachers soon realized that, with the right supports, students were easily meeting this goal, so now kindergarteners have to write a short paragraph.
These elevated expectations showcase the Laurel Street mindset: Good is never good enough. So, it comes as no surprise that staff are not content with getting students merely over the proficiency threshold. “Despite the external factors, we think all the kids can do it,” Lozier said.