Colonial School District Superintendent Jeffrey D. Menzer unearthed a surprising fact while he was devising a method to track the effectiveness of a new focus on student reading skills and scores.
The 2022 eighth graders who had been at Colonial schools since second grade scored higher on reading proficiency tests than those in eighth grade in 2019, Menzer told the Colonial School Board Tuesday night.
“You’re telling me our post-COVID students outperformed their pre-COVID peers in reading,” the superintendent recalls asking the data team.
That data showed 40.9% of the 2022 eighth graders maintained or improved their ranking as proficient — meaning they met their grade’s standard. But only 35.5% of the 2019 eighth graders did, the data showed.
“I’m hearing all about learning loss and how we fail the students and the staff are panicked that they failed our students during COVID and they’re not doing anything to help them, but our post-COVID cohort actually outperformed the pre-COVID cohort,” Menzer said.
He credited the dedication of teachers who kept trying to help students with schools closed and classes forced into online sessions that were not comfortable for students, teacher or parents.
“Granted, we’re still not meeting the standard. We need to be totally transparent,” Menzer said. “This 40.9% here is low, but it’s higher than it was before COVID. So whatever we did for students to help them stay on track, I believe this is something to be celebrated by every teacher on this staff.”
The comparison pleased Laurisa Schutt, executive director of First State Educate, a nonprofit devoted to improving Delaware’s public schools.
“Menzer is using data analytics to determine what is working and what is not working so his educators know when and how to pivot,” she said. “The outcome is that kids are learning – with proof. Data is not something to be feared for blame — it is valuable information from which to focus precious little time. Well done, Colonial, for leaning into the high stakes of now!”
Britney Mumford, executive director of DelawareCAN, a nonprofit that encourages everyday citizens to get involved in education, said Colonial’s data is truly encouraging.
“They show us that when we adopt innovative but proven new methods we can expect improvement,” she said. “The dedication of Menzer and the Colonial School District on improving reading proficiency deserves applause but what I really love is their candor on the topic.
“While scores have improved, he doesn’t hesitate that they can’t take their foot off the gas. Hats off to a team that pushed even harder in such trying times. Let’s replicate this success.”
Finding the reading scores
The system’s discovery comes as the district is spending about $3 million to buy a new curriculum that gives the district a more comprehensive way to focus on the science of reading.
That money is coming from Colonial’s share of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds designed to help schools cope with problems generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Menzer started his presentation on the COVID numbers by noting that the board had asked him to find a way to track student achievement as the system embraced the new curriculum.
He finally decided: “If we want to measure success, let’s measure success over time, and measure what we contributed to that student’s success.”
The best way to do that, he concluded, was to track Colonial students from second to eighth grade, when they will be headed to high school and need the best reading skills possible to succeed there and in life.
“There are 410 students (out of 900-plus) that actually stayed in Colonial for all those years,” he said. “They’re ours. We own them. We can say that we poured our heart and soul into them and they got the full Colonial experience.”
He chose second grade because students in that year start taking the STAR test.
It measures more than just the bare basic phonic skills that are tested in kindergarten and first grade, said Katie Gutowski, the system’s ELA supervisor of curriculum and instruction. Their tests focus on things like the sounds of letters and putting those sounds together to make a word.
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By second grade, the STAR test is beginning to put those skills together and focus on grammar, vocabulary and comprehension.
Those test results can be compared apples to apples with scores from the Smarter Balanced assessments that Delaware students take each year, she said.
Second grade is also an important year in reading instruction because third graders are expected to using their ability to read to learn rather than learning basics.
Menzer needed a baseline year to work from and chose the 2022 eighth graders. But, he told the board Tuesday, he got a bit of blowback from people who saw the early results.
Because of all the fretting over learning loss during the pandemic, some people thought that Menzer should pick a different year because the scores would be more accurately applicable to students being back in school full-time.
Menzer asked the data team to go back and look at eighth graders from 2019, the year before the pandemic hit.
While his slide show during his presentation showed only the eighth-grade scores, the system is tracking each grade, he told the board.
Posting that many scores on a slide gets messy, so they narrowed it down to just eighth grade for presentation.
Ultimately, Menzer said, the process led him to conclude the district must embrace four things:
- Using the new CKLA Science of Reading curriculum
- Keeping as many of its students in Colonial schools between second and eighth grade
- Focusing on support for high-quality teachers
- Fostering continuous improvement principles.
The new curriculum
The new CKLA curriculum — which stands for Core Knowledge Language Arts — was one of several new curriculums that Colonial piloted last year, Gutowski said.
They wanted a program more closely aligned with the science of reading and Common Core Test Standards than what the district was using, Gutowski said.
Based on teacher comments and some comparisons, Colonial chose the Core Knowledge curriculum, which includes books, activity/workbooks, teacher development training and more for five years.
The curriculum is being used this year in kindergarten through second grade and expanded next year into third through fifth grades.
“I want to use the best programs out there through research and observation and implementation,” Gutowski said. “And so we have those resources now.”
The old curriculum was purchased 10 years ago when schools shifted to a Common Core Standard.
Some of that system’s resources were not as aligned with standards or the science of reading as teachers would have liked, she said.
For example, she said, the maker said that a story used in the classroom would include characters, a setting and events, but it didn’t.
Or teachers needed text using simple words with a single vowel such as cat, dog or hat to review a lesson, but there was nothing provided.
Colonial bolstered that curriculum by buying and using other resources to meet those needs, Gutowski said.
The new CKLA curriculum includes all that.
One advantage that Colonial has now in making curriculum decisions now rather than 10 years ago is that more reviews and comparative information about curriculums is available through sites such as Ed Reports, Gutowski said.
She said Colonial expects their new curriculum to align with the state’s new focus on the science of reading. The state Department of Education is now curating a list of curriculums and materials that fit a new state law demanding that focus.
Gutowski said the change is invigorating and the district expects to see a lot of improvement in reading scores.
She met last night with reading specialists who focus on kindergarten students who have the most difficulty learning to read.
“They were just blown away at what their kindergarteners can do at this point in the year with sounds, identifying sounds, handwriting, writing letters, creating words,” Gutowski said. “So I think we’re starting to gain some traction and that’s really exciting for us here in Colonial.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience.
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