Superintendents Reflect on their Move Beyond Test Scores

Getting Smart | January 5, 2017 

By Todd Brekhus 

Test scores show whether or not a student can answer a question correctly, not how deeply they understand a concept. This concept is especially true when measuring mastery in an area such as reading. Kids grow more by doing, being supported when they need it and having a choice of how they go about their practice than they do by preparing for and taking test after test. To truly understand and support their students’ literacy, these two superintendents have adopted an innovative method they call “measuring reading with reading.” They have each applied the concept in a different way, but their mission is the same: to help students (and members of the community) become engaged and lifelong readers.

Empowering Teachers to Become Instructional Coaches

When he first started as Superintendent of Maury County School District, Tennessee, Chris Marczak, Ed.D., collaborated with community members, school and district leaders, classroom educators, parents and students themselves to collectively decide on their “7 Keys to Success.” One of these keys was that all students’ reading proficiency should be at or above grade level by the end of 3rd grade.

In order to meet this mandate, many schools requested access to more books. The elementary and middle schools adopted myON, a digital literacy environment that provides more than 10,000 digital books to match students’ interest and ability level. As a first measure, educators were able to see how much time students spent reading as well as what they were reading. With the software, says Marczak, “we can take a new approach to literacy assessment: measuring reading with reading. The built-in Lexile assessments and reporting features let teachers measure how close students are to reading at grade level, and allow them to provide digital intervention if students start to fall behind.”

To support teachers through this instructional shift, Marczak didn’t hire a variety of instructional coaches. “We wanted to utilize the talent and drive of our teachers already on staff and in the trenches, doing the good work,” he said. So all of Maury County’s 96 instructional coaches are current classroom educators, focused on working with teachers in each school to better manage their classrooms and differentiate instruction for students with a wide range of ability levels. These coaches get both soft and hard skills training, time out of the classroom—during the day—to do their work, and a stipend to compensate them for the hours they work beyond their contract.

When it comes to measuring literacy, Marczak said, “Our coaches help teachers ‘rethink’ formative assessments and assess students more often than at the end of a unit or semester. Less formal, more frequent assessments allow teachers to adjust the curriculum to match our students’ varying ability levels and put each one on track to meet the key goals on time.”

Reading in Pre-K

As a Texas District of Innovation, Manor Independent School District is on the cutting edge of turning innovative ideas into reality by forming community partnerships, closing the literacy gap and leveraging technology. In 2015, the district voluntarily funded an all-day pre-K program that provides access to digital texts both at home and school. The idea is that if students start reading at a younger age, they will have greater success later in life.

According to Dr. Royce Avery, the Superintendent of Manor ISD, starting kids’ reading earlier was part of a larger plan. “Coming into the 2016 school year, a key element of our work has been to devise a ‘local innovation plan’ involving education leaders and community stakeholders. Major priorities in the district’s plan we’ve set forth include innovative curriculum and instructional methods along with parent engagement and community participation. We found including our school leaders first has worked well so they can continue to build community involvement on their campuses.”

In partnership with myON, Manor ISD “set out to promote innovation through literacy, bringing together our students, educators, families, and community to share in closing the literacy gap.”

To support this strong literacy push, everyone in the district has started to measure reading in a new way. Dr. Avery said, “Our students and teachers have started tracking literacy engagement by measuring time spent reading and analyzing data weekly to ensure improvement is happening in every classroom and on every level.”

Measuring reading with reading has not only put students in the driver’s seat of their own education; it has also helped move Manor ISD’s literacy initiative beyond the classroom. According to Dr. Avery, “This initial commitment has been a major step in the next phase of bringing aboard family involvement and community outreach.”

Approaching literacy as much more than preparation for a test has put Manor well on the way to becoming a true community of readers.

Todd Brekhus is president of myON, and a former teacher, department chair and technology director. Follow him on Twitter: @ToddBrekhus.

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