Raising Test Scores: One School’s Story

Guest post by Amy Mims

When I became an assistant principal of Independence High School in Charlotte, NC, our school’s test scores were low. As I started observing classrooms, I saw talented teachers hard at work designing and delivering interesting lessons that utilized a number of instructional best practices. I also saw motivated students who were engaged in lessons, completed assignments, and did well on assessments. I wondered: What was causing our school’s low test scores?

It was clear to me that the data did not reflect our students’ abilities, so I turned my attention to what we were teaching students and how we were assessing them. Working together, our entire school team took an open and honest look at what we taught and how we assessed and then implemented changes to raise our test scores significantly. Here are some of the lessons we learned along our journey:

Make Effective Use of PLCs

Since we were making significant changes to curriculum and assessments, it was imperative that we facilitated teacher collaboration so that the staff could approach these challenges as a team. Using what I learned from Richard Dufour’s books and conferences detailing practices of highly effective professional learning communities (PLCs), I started by finding ways to improve our existing PLCs. Our first need was to remove time barriers that were preventing our PLCs from meeting on a regular basis. To address this challenge, I rearranged the master schedule to provide all departments with common planning time. Next, we needed to restructure our PLC meetings to make the best use of the time. I created and led professional development sessions on effective PLCs for department chairpersons and PLC lead teachers, and we collaborated to develop a plan to restructure the meetings.

Evaluate Existing Curriculum and Assessments

With our more effective approach for PLCs, our lead teachers and department chairs worked with each of the PLCs to take a closer look at the curriculum and assessments in conjunction with student data and state standards in order to understand the issues affecting our low test scores. Our academic facilitator and I attended PLC meetings and collaborated with teachers in instructional planning. The most instrumental exercise was leading teachers in a process to analyze their common assessments to determine if they were aligned to state standards and highly rigorous. This was a pivotal moment. The instructional focus changed as teachers realized that their assessments were overtesting some standards, missing other standards, and consisted of primarily knowledge-level questions. As a result, our teacher leaders collaborated with their teams to create new lessons aligned to state standards and essential standards charts that detailed essential standards, rigorous activities, timelines, and newly aligned common assessments.

Analyze Student Work Samples

Another challenge we addressed was improving the student assessment analysis process. All of our data collection centered around multiple-choice tests aligned to the standards. To take this process to the next level, we developed procedures and rubrics to look at open-ended student assignments. Initially, we created projects and tasks designed to assess student knowledge based on the rigor of the state goals for each content area. PLC teachers collaborated to create exemplar work products before assigning the task. Once students completed the tasks, we analyzed student work in comparison to the exemplar to determine holes in student learning. Taking the student assessment analysis process from standardized testing to a focus on student work samples increased our ability to identify misconceptions and provide remediation and enrichment thoroughly and consistently. In addition, students maintained their own data trackers to identify their own misconceptions in our collaborative classrooms.

Utilize Data to Drive Instruction

Our PLC discussions also showed us that many teachers were struggling to analyze data to improve instruction and student learning. I read the book Driven by Data by Paul Bambrick-Santoya and realized we needed to implement the Data-Driven Instruction (DDI) process. A local university staff member and I lead a DDI professional development session for lead teachers, assistant principals, administrative interns, the dean of students, and the academic facilitator. Together, we helped teachers develop a 90-day plan to improve instruction, create effective assessments, collect data, and analyze it. We introduced teachers to a variety of formative assessments they could use to collect assessment data that would guide instruction on a daily basis. All year, we collected and analyzed formative assessment data to guide instruction, remediate learning gaps, and challenge students with more rigor.

Implementing these changes were key to boosting our test scores. By 2014, our student achievement growth was number two in the state, and by 2015, we were number one. Moreover, our end-of-the-year data was aligned to the data my team had collected throughout the school year, so our efforts to improve assessments throughout the year were effective. We are very proud of our success and continue to hone our PLCs, curriculum, assessments, and ways of using data so that we maintain our positive growth.

What strategies have been effective in raising your school’s test scores?

Amy Mims is the principal at Francis Bradley Middle School in Huntersville, NC. Previously an assistant principal at Independence High School in Charlotte, she was the 2017 North Carolina Assistant Principal of the Year.

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