Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (2 of 9)
The spin of Meade takes me from day to night and back. My school world spins so fast at times it makes me sick; the last few weeks the pace has been particularly frantic. My workday has been filled with the endless details of the daily operations of the school. Responding to the Christie Sims attacks, on top of the daily task of leading a challenged school, is difficult. At the end of the day, I am exhausted. I just want to go home and sleep. When finally I do get myself tucked into bed, I sleep only for an hour or two. Then the thoughts of what I have to do the next day prod me back to consciousness. Restless tossing and turning is becoming my nightly norm. When the morning comes I start off exhausted. By the end of the week I am wiped out physically and mentally.
John DiPaolo, stopped in to see me this morning. He wanted to review our results from the previous year’s Terra Nova tests. He is preparing for a meeting with Greg Thorton the new Chief Academic Officer (CAO) for the school district. At this meeting, the CAO wants to review the progress partnership students are making towards reaching the academic goals set by the school district. John is concerned that the number of students scoring above the fiftieth percentile in our third and fifth grades is lower than the other grades in the school. This concern is justified. The test scores of these two groups are much lower than the other grades. I attribute the poor showing of these students to the difficulty of the back-to-back testing cycle they were subjected to last year. They had to take two different tests. First they took the state test, which took two weeks to complete. Then they completed the “Terra Nova”, a nationally normed, standardized test that lasted for another two weeks. For one whole month these students answered test questions.
The scores of the students in grades three, five and eight who took the state test improved significantly, but decreased greatly on the Terra Nova. However, the students who didn’t take the state test in grades —four, six and seven—all significantly improved their Terra Nova test scores when compared to their results in the prior year.
To me, the most promising result of our test scores was the significant decrease in the percentage of students scoring in the lowest percentile across all grades. This is a strong signal that our instructional program is having a significant impact on all of the students in the school. This is not a result that would occur as a result of test prep instruction. However only moving students into the proficient category counts for making Adequate Yearly Progress. In Pennsylvania to score at the proficient level on the PSSA is equivalent to scoring at the sixty-fifth percentile or higher on the Terra Nova test, which is well above the national norm. Very few of our students are scoring at this performance level in spite of our progress. Our test results make us appear to be a failing school despite our success at providing our children with a quality educational program.
As we were reviewing this data, the editor and staff writer from the Temple Review Magazine were visiting classrooms in the school. Their mission was to observe the academic performance of students in our school.
When John and I finished reviewing test score data, I joined the two journalists. For an hour and a half we toured the school. The three of us talked about the work the Meade staff has accomplished over the last seven years. There was much for me to describe and explain to them, including our successful efforts to reduce class size and to improve professional development at the school site. We have created teacher study groups and partnered with the Philadelphia Writing Project to offer graduate credit courses for our teachers. Our retention of teachers for five or more years was near seventy percent. A number of successful parent outreach activities have finally resulted in the organization of a Home and School Association. School safety has greatly improved. Seven years ago we had thirty serious assaults on teachers and/or students. For the last three years we have had none. We have applied for and been successful in winning several grants. Remembering and explaining so much in so little time left me breathless. They had many questions, the answers leading to many more questions. They were impressed by the scope and extent of the work that our Meade team has accomplished.
Our school has made so much progress over the years. I often lose sight of our achievements. I need to be reminded. The result of a single high stakes test is how the federal and state government determine our success. Yet there isn’t one measure that can describe a school’s strengths or weaknesses. This accountability system taps into people’s feelings about schools more than it describes them. Anyone in this country who has attended school knows that if you don’t pass the test, you are a failure. We have a long history as participants in an educational system where you don’t question the test. There are a lot of questions to ask about the fairness of using one test score in order to judge the effectiveness of a school. Frequently policy makers suggest that those who question this accountability procedure are just making excuses. It doesn’t make sense that professional educators are discouraged from questioning the validity or use of a high stakes accountability system in order to grade schools. Someone needs to ask these questions.