A Superintendent Writes… Thoughts on Middle School Scores

A LYS Superintendent writes the following:

SC,

Well, our 6th grade scores seemingly present a conundrum. But there are explanations for the dip.  And, believe it or not, the dip is primarily the result of suspect adult practice.  Subtle, suspect and not directly measurable, but adult practice none-the-less.

Based on discussions with our instructional leaders and reviewing our PowerWalks data, I confirmed there was no significant difference in instructional delivery.  Also, our common assessments results were consistently low and ultimately predicative.  Of obvious impact was the fact that we had to pull out our 6th grade support and intervention structures due to staffing vacancies, but I have identified other adult practices that warrant further examination.

First is the culture created by us, the adults.  This same group of 6th grade student bombed the 4th grade test, yet did fine in 5th grade.  In an attempt to relieve test anxiety, these children were told by their teachers over a period of years that the test didn’t count except for 5th grade.  I confirmed that 6th grade parents called this year to verify that 6th graders could still go to 7th grade without passing the test. 

I think the adults had good intentions and truly believed that reducing test anxiety would help the children do better on the test.  Perhaps not so, as it turns out.  I think this one can be fixed.  We have to work on ways to make the test relevant to students.  Right now, they know the results were disappointing. We have already identified our deepest hole and have started the backfilling process.  The 6th graders who are behind will begin the next year scheduled into a progressive model of interventions (which we now have the personnel to do) instead of extracurricular activities. Of course, these students will be able to learn their way out of the intervention, or back in. A benefit of a mature, three-week common assessment program.  The middle school principal understands that we have to start undoing our counter-productive adult created culture.

The last adult piece is the way our teachers interact with our middle school children.  It is a stricter, authoritative tone that tends to alienate children.  And this seems amplified in 6th grade for some reason.  This problem I don’t know how to fix.

Thoughts?

SC Response Thoughts? Just a couple.

First, I encourage you to keep trying to measure a “something” you know is there but cannot yet identify.  This is the “problem behind the problem” environment that you want to work in.  It is where you have figured out a problem everyone else is stuck on.  But by solving that problem, a hidden problem is revealed.  Now you are working on something novel.  This is your chance to further the profession and our collective knowledge base. I live for those opportunities.

Second, don’t overlook the fact that the bump in 5th grade scores are often driven by the fact that 5th grade is a SSI year. Getting more practice time and two chances to pass a test usually produces a noticeable bump in passing rates.

Third, I have long believed that middle school should more resemble Senior Elementary than Junior High.  So I agree that the change in adult tone from 5th grade to 6th grade is detrimental to student performance.  Now, we have both heard the tired argument, “We have to prepare these kids for High School.”  

To which I respond, “Agreed, but we have three years to do it. Why the rush to do it all in the first semester of 6th grade?”

There are some studies that indicate that 6th grade students scored higher on TAKS tests if they were on an elementary campus instead of a middle school or junior high.  But I could never find demographic peer schools to validate this to my satisfaction.  

What my gut tells me is that your sixth graders should transition slowly from one instructional model to another.  Meaning that 6th grade should be about 90% similar to 5th grade.  7th grade should be about 50% similar to 5th grade. And 8th grade should be about 70% similar to 9th grade.  Because what elementary teachers seem to both understand and practice better than all the rest of us is that you teach the kid, not the content.

Think. Work. Achieve. Your turn…

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