Implementing a Growth Model in a School System


Making the shift from traditional, long-standing, institutional behavior is difficult for any organization. For those of us in public education, a shift that must be aggressively pursued is abandonment of our single-minded emphasis on an assessment model that relies almost entirely on measures of student status at a single point in time for a more balanced approach that also values student growth over time.

The traditional use of assessment in K-12 education as a tool to prove rather than improve student learning is deeply embedded in practice. Most certainly, No Child Left Behind and its onerous regulations requiring one-size-fits-all testing have reinforced these traditional assessment practices as state and federal agencies use test results to hold schools and their teachers accountable. Unfortunately, these practices do little to serve student needs. Ultimately, they force us to reconsider the role of assessment in education.

Schools and school districts nationwide are facing what Ronald A. Heifitz and Donald L. Laurie coined “adaptive challenges” in their Harvard Business Review article, “The Work of Leadership.” These are challenges that force organizations to clarify their values and deeply held beliefs and adopt new ways of thinking and operating when they cease producing the results they require. “Adaptive problems are often systematic problems with no ready answers,” Heifitz and Laurie wrote.

They suggest that to make change happen, the executives of an organization must break a long-standing behavior of their own: providing leadership in the form of solutions. The authors suggest that solutions to adaptive challenges usually reside in the people within the organization.

The Poway, Calif., Unified School District has embraced the concepts articulated by Heifitz and Laurie. In 2001, we launched a districtwide effort to implement a growth-based assessment model. Along the way, we learned we would have to challenge long-held beliefs and practices about assessment. In the end, we derived that the primary purpose of assessment should be to accelerate student achievement and not simply measure it.

Questioning Assessment
To challenge our own views on assessment, the first question we posed required us to reflect on one of the fundamental tenets of assessment: Why do we assess students? Were we embracing an outdated view of assessment? And if so, how would we articulate a contemporary and more productive view?

In looking back, we came up with a lengthy list of answers as to why we traditionally tested students. These could be summarized as the following fundamental reasons:

• to be publicly accountable;

• to justify or produce grades;

• to produce consequences (reward or punish);

• to evaluate programs; and

• to provide feedback to the learner.

We wrestled with the moral purposes of education in society and the reasons why we became educators. Ultimately, the conversation led us to develop our Guiding Principle of Assessment, stating the primary purpose of assessment is to accelerate student learning. We subsequently developed corollaries or core values that defined specific institutional behaviors. For example, if the primary purpose of assessment is to accelerate student learning, then the results of these assessments must be timely, meaningful to the learner, aligned with instruction and show growth of the student learning over time.

The superintendent at Poway facilitated the process of articulating these new value statements. Working closely with our teachers’ union, we developed a memorandum of understanding, which in turn charged a study committee of teachers and principals with the task of researching formative and summative assessment and formally recommending a plan of action to move toward a growth model.

Simultaneously, we challenged a second institutional belief about how best we could effect change. The traditional assumption is that strong top-down leadership from the district office creates meaningful change. However, our research into organizational change led us to conclude we were dealing with an adaptive challenge best addressed at a grassroots level by the people within the organization seeking innovative solutions.

The study committee embraced the research that suggested school building staff would be the most effective and efficient unit of change and recommended faculty and administrators at each school be empowered to develop their own site-based assessment plans focused primarily on creating an articulated system of formative assessments from grade to grade. To accomplish this step, the study committee recommended that all district-mandated assessments be suspended for one-year to allow each school to examine beliefs, determine needs and draft their site-based assessment plan. This, we believed, was an adaptive plan implemented to achieve deep and lasting change.

Finally, we embraced the belief that feedback to professionals and staff inside the classroom must be as important as feedback to constituents outside the classroom. In apparent conflict with NCLB mandates, our district concluded the single-minded focus on the statewide tests for school accountability was contrary to our beliefs about the role of assessment in education. Indeed, we concluded these state tests would not yield our desired outcome of accelerating all students’ learning.

A once-a-year “autopsy” by the state can provide meaningful insights into program effectiveness and alignment of instruction, but these insights were not in alignment with our primary purpose of assessment. In a nutshell, formative assessment became more important than summative. Operationally, this meant that our focus shifted to accountability for every student demonstrating growth over the year. NCLB/state-mandated testing, although important, became subordinate to showing students’ progress during the year as well as year to year.

Choosing Assessment
The final piece of our growth model was the formal adoption in 2004 of a common benchmarking assessment that schools could employ to verify growth. We selected the computer adaptive Measures of Academic Progress by the Northwest Evaluation Association. It met four critical criteria essential to our growth model:

• Correlation between our benchmarking assessment and the annual state tests.

• Individual measures of growth during the year and over several years.

• Specific feedback on the subelements of the state standards. Because a general reading score does not provide the teacher or learner with adequate information for improvement, our benchmark assessment breaks out reading, math and language usage into subscores with specific skills associated with each.

• Local and national norms.

Is the Measures of Academic Progress mandated for use at all schools in our 33,000-student K-12 district? Absolutely not. Because the school is the most effective and efficient unit of change and each school is responsible for implementing its own site assessment plan, MAP has been an optional assessment provided by the district since 2001. At first, only a few schools elected to use it, but it soon became clear it provided information that teachers and students could use several times a year to monitor growth, set goals and initiate teaching to assure student learning. Teachers continue to develop their skills translating MAP test results into individual student growth goals.

Culture Shift
This change in culture has become manifest in our core processes.
First, goal conferences for our principals have begun, in the last two years, to focus on growth over status. Annual goal reviews have been replaced with mid-year updates based on growth data. School improvement plans use growth as the measure of success. Teachers who closely monitor student progress and modify instruction to ensure student success now get growth reports, delivered in fall, winter and spring. These same teachers have, since 2004, been collaborating with their students in the development and shared management of formally written class learning plans that include specific learnings objectives, action plans and measurable targets.

Meanwhile, an unexpected change in the culture of our district has been the active role of the students managing much of their own learning. This year, for the first time, every elementary student will have a personal growth goal.

Ray Wilson is executive director of assessment and accountability in the Poway Unified School District, 13626 Twin Peaks Road, Poway, CA 92064. E-mail: