KEIZERTIMES/File photo

KEIZERTIMES/File photo

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Last November, report cards issued by the Oregon Department of Education hit administrators and teachers at Whiteaker Middle School like an anvil falling out of a clear, blue sky.

“I’ll never forget the professional development meeting we had when we showed the scores (from the 2012-13) report cards. I had never seen morale so low. We couldn’t understand how our view of what we do and what those scores were got so far apart,” said Tami Badinger, Wolverine assistant principal. “I watched everyone walk out with their heads down and I felt like there was nothing I could do.”

The results weren’t good. Whiteaker had slipped in its school rating to below average and settled somewhere among the lowest ranks within the Salem-Keizer School District. Low growth in the school’s English language learning and disability population were one factor that caused the school’s ratings to sink.

“We’ve always been proud of what we do, yet we were placed in the lowest in the district. We had to make a change. If we were going to be rated on just the district assessment, we had to shift our focus,” said Chad Christensen, an instructional coach at the school.

By the following month, administrators had regrouped and put forth a new plan for improving the school’s standing. Christensen did some digging into the math behind the school report card ratings and came up with a new approach.

Instead of pushing the students lagging far behind to make all-or-nothing leaps in achievement within a nine-month period, Christensen calculated individual focus-on-growth (FOG) scores for each student that would show above average growth.

“Where they might have had to jump 20 points to meet the state standards, they could grow seven points and still demonstrate above-average gains,” Christensen said.

“For the students who never met the OAKS goals before, they realized that they could show growth from where they started. It changed their thinking about the test,” said Lauren Stephenson, a language arts teacher.

Teachers would then work with each student to move the needle toward the FOG numbers they hoped to achieve. The faculty also began looking at new ways to approach testing that included new strategies on how to pull apart the reading passages and answer the associated questions.

“We kept our focus very narrow and we had close to 100 percent buy-in from teachers in every class in the school,” Badinger said.

Administrators also changed up the school’s incentive system. In the past, students who met the test standards were given visible rewards for their achievement, but students who didn’t make the grade ended up wearing a version of the scarlet letter, which did nothing for morale.

With the new FOG goals in mind, students were given bracelets for making above average growth even when they didn’t quite make the cut when it came to the overall score. Different colors signified different levels of achievement.

“They had visible reminders of the growth they’d made everywhere they went,” said Stephenson.

This year, when report cards were released, Whiteaker had raised its ranking to “about average,” but that label does little to evoke the enormity of its successes.

The Wolverines had more sixth and eighth grade students pass the OAKS reading test than any other middle school in the Salem-Keizer School District. They tied for second in the district among seventh graders. Overall, 83 percent of the student body met or exceeded its OAKS reading test (up 9 percent over the previous year). Whiteaker’s ELL students improved by 14 percent and its students with disabilities improved 12 percent. More than two-thirds of the ELL students advanced at least one year under the new FOG score-driven assessment.

In math, 75 percent of students met or exceeded the standards with the seventh grade students making a 12 percent leap and the eighth grade students improving their number by 4 percent.

While the new ratings came with a sigh of relief, the journey is far from over. This year, the school will institute a new standard testing system, dubbed Smarter Balance, and teachers and administrators are already in the throes of the change. They are encouraging parents to have their students read as much as possible to build up stamina for the reading and writing-heavy test.

“There’s a heavier emphasis on proving their work in math and reading, and they will only be allowed to use calculators on specific sections of the test,” said math teacher Toni Rommel.

Principal Julia Dewitt said teachers have added after-school hours to their schedules and are making themselves available for additional support.

“Beginning next week, we’ve even arranged for buses later in the afternoon for those students who need the transportation,” Dewitt said.