High-poverty school district leads state gains in student ‘growth’

Hancock County Schools, a tiny district halfway between Atlanta and Augusta, may have so-so test scores, but it still won a crown for student achievement under a new Georgia measure.

The 962-student school district went from worst to first in reading and had significant gains in many other subjects, according to new student growth scores released this week. Hancock’s students still aren’t earning the highest scores on state exams, but elementary students there are learning faster than just about any other school district in the state.

This recognition for Hancock County Schools, where every student qualifies for free or reduced-priced meals, illustrates how Georgia’s new student growth data are beginning to provide a new view of student achievement.

Historically “good schools” and “bad schools” were defined by the percentage of students that passed or failed state exams. Growth data are calculated by comparing a student’s standardized test scores with those of students who started out with similar scores in the past. The better a student performs relative to his or her academic peers, the higher his or her growth percentile.

Instead of measuring how full a student’s glass is, the state is now measuring how fast teachers and schools are pouring.

Hancock Superintendent Gwendolyn Jefferson Reeves attributes her district’s gains to staff changes and a focus on student data analysis after she arrived several years ago.

“The teachers were just shooting from the hip,” she said. Now teachers zero in on weaknesses, and the district has grant money to pay for tutors in the high-poverty district.

Students in Decatur City and Gwinnett County Public Schools also showed big growth in several key academic subjects.

Students in Gwinnett, the state’s largest district, grew more in reading than almost any district, and logged some of the state’s highest growth scores in English/language arts and math.

The district was propelled by schools like Twin Rivers Middle in Buford, where students grew more in reading than those in almost any other school in the metro area.

Principal Linda Boyd said that’s the result of a concentrated focus on reading. Students are reading more informational text in all subjects and have learned how to annotate work. They’re expected to read a text multiple times to pull out key information and draw conclusions.

Boyd says the school has embraced the new growth results and uses them during mid-term teacher evaluations to help educators improve.

It helps them teach students individually, she said. “It allows us to differentiate.”

It’s the second time the state has released student growth data, which is already part of the College and Career Ready Performance Index, Georgia’s “report card” for schools and districts. Georgia is among about 40 states using academic growth as a factor in rating schools, though how growth is calculated and how much weight it’s given varies.

Georgia is also one of about 20 states using growth as a major factor in evaluating teachers. Starting this school year, students’ growth will count for about half of job evaluations, a cause for concern among some educators. Eventually, those evaluations will be used to make decisions about hiring, firing and pay, which has proven controversial across the country.

Georgia’s growth measure does not adjust for factors beyond a teacher’s control, such as student disability or poverty.

Even with growth there is a performance gap between students the state labels as “economically disadvantaged” and those it does not. And that gap is growing, said Dana Rickman, lead researcher for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit group. “The more advantaged groups were growing at higher rates,” she said. “Science and math in particular, you see big differences between income groups.”

Still, it’s better than the old way of measuring performance, said Mary Jenks, the principal at Briarlake Elementary School in DeKalb County. She remembers the drooping morale with each new round of test scores for students with learning disabilities. Most couldn’t pass no matter how hard they, and the teachers, worked, she said.

Teachers would think: “My gosh, I worked myself to death but nobody’s going to recognize it because that child didn’t get 800 points on the CRCT,” she said. Now, those teachers get recognized if their students improve.

Briarlake Elementary growth scores fluctuated. Fourth-graders’ English/language arts growth score rose sharply, while fifth-grade science growth plummeted. Jenks attributes it to experiments with staffing and scheduling. She moved teachers around and decided to send in co-teachers — reinforcements for more one-on-one work with students — in some classes but not others. She will study the results to plan for next year.

Robyn Binger, the co-president of the PTA, was unfazed by the scores. As far as she is concerned, the state is testing too much. She judges the school by a different, and more familiar, measure.

“My child is very happy at Briarlake,” she said. “Briarlake is not without its faults, just like every other school. But our community is awesome.”

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