Teaching To the Tests
A school district tailors instruction to what each student knows and what each still needs to learn
Over at North Myrtle Beach Middle School, students shift out of their regular classes every Friday into math groups by ability and into English, science, and social studies classes grouped by reading scores, to practice skills or perhaps study an issue in greater depth using more-challenging texts. Last year, the percentages of middle-schoolers reaching or surpassing proficiency in math and language arts rose by 12 and 15 points, respectively. (The faculty will be watching Washington hopefully, however. Their disabled learners' progress in language arts, though encouraging, has been too slow, and the school has been labeled as needing improvement.)
The most radical experiment is underway at North Myrtle Beach High School, where ninth graders are divided into "houses," and those in Franklin House study English, math, science, and social studies independently at their own pace. Each morning, half of the 107 freshmen in the house (whose abilities range the spectrum) report to the big, comfortable learning center to study on their own; consult one on one with any of the four teachers staffing the center; or gather in small groups to review geometry concepts, debate the merits of capitalism versus socialism, or consider the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird . After lunch, they move to regular classes for their electives while the other half of the house works in the center.
Mastery is the goal, and nobody starts the next lesson without wrapping up the current one with a grade of at least 85 percent. Those who need extra time will get it during summer school and may even continue ninth-grade work into next year; high achievers might be taking college courses by the time they're seniors. "I've got more than 100 kids, and they're all at different places," says math teacher Tim Graham, who, on a recent morning, administered three different exams, ran three review sessions on different material, and helped a number of students work through problems.
Gaining ground. Though it's impossible to know how students in Franklin House will fare in the long run, testing results over the first year show that more students have gained ground--and more ground--here than in the other two more-traditional ninth-grade houses.
But all that freedom can be a problem for many students, at least at first. "I might have to go to summer school," says Javon Roggerson, 15, who admits to "slacking off" for too long in the beginning, so that he has to finish three books for English in the next few weeks. Now that he's got the hang of it, though, he intends to nab a spot in the sophomore version planned for next year.
For many educators, the appeal of having data on student growth to guide instruction is overshadowed by fear that the numbers will be used to penalize schools and teachers whose students are standing still. After all, more and more states and districts are implementing "value added" accountability systems that consider student gains as one measure of performance.
In Horry County, administrators have minimized teacher anxiety by mining the data not for punitive purposes but to be sure that those who need support get it. Virginia Horton, principal of North Myrtle Beach Middle School, holds at least three conferences with each teacher during the year to consider student progress and, when necessary, figure out how to improve what's going on in the classroom. "My instruction has changed dramatically," says Sarah Mottola, a language arts teacher. When she moved to the school last year, Mottola found it difficult to raise reading scores: She was teaching classes at three different grade levels and lacked prep time with the other teachers. Now, as a seventh-grade teacher, Mottola plans three times a week with two colleagues, and they all share their proven methods. Her kids are among the biggest gainers.