PAWTUCKET — Using a district-wide initiative called “Write On!” has paid off in a big way for the city's public school students, as they showed some improvements in writing and reading scores on the standardized tests administered last fall.
In a presentation made to the School Committee Tuesday night, Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke said that there was some good news in the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) results. She said that in the past 24 months, there have been significant improvements in 5th and 8th grade writing proficiency (students are tested for writing in only grades 5, 8 and 11).
Writing scores, particularly at the 5th grade level, rose an impressive 11 points over the previous year and middle school writing scores improved by 10 percentage points, Cylke stated. Also, Pawtucket's 5th graders surpassed the state average in writing, scoring at 60 percent “at/above proficient” compared to the state's score of 59 percent.
Some of the biggest gains in 5th grade writing from the 2011-2012 school year to the current school year occurred at Baldwin, Curtis, Greene, and Winters, with jumps of 20 points or more, and all of the other elementary schools saw gains of 5 to 10 points. The only exceptions were Curvin-McCabe and Potter-Burns, where slight dips occurred from the previous year's writing scores.
Cylke said that gains were also made in reading at many of the city's schools, with 6th grade reading scores reaching an all-time high at 71 percent proficient. She noted that the 6th grade reading scores have steadily improved in the last four school years, compared to 2009-2010, when 52 percent of the 6th graders were meeting or exceeding standards. In 2010-2011, 60 percent were meeting or exceeding standards, that figure rose to 62 percent in 2011-2012, and jumped again in 2012-2013 to the 71 percent mark.
“We will be celebrating with these teachers,” said Cylke, who added that she he plans to visit the schools and offers congratulations in person to the educators behind the biggest improvements in test scores.
Cylke said the “Write On!” initiative, instituted during the 2011-2012 school year by Literacy Coach Lindsey Reilly, urged teachers in all subject areas to have students write more and give them corrective feedback on their work. This is based on the premise that “we think at the tip of a pen,” she said. She also cited a book called “Results” by author and educator Mike Schmidt in which it is shown that every urban school district's standardized test scores improve when students' writing improves.
Other data that Cylke was pleased to relay to the committee was that the district's four-year graduation rate has improved from 59 percent in 2009 to 67 percent in 2012. The five-year graduation rate (in which a student stays in school one extra year) saw a jump from 64 percent in 2009 to 71 percent in 2012.
Cylke added, however, that there is obviously much work that needs to be done to improve the district's NECAP scores, particularly in math. She said she is also “going deep” into analyzing the latest NECAP scores according to individual schools and will be meeting with teachers and administrators at all of the buildings.
Cylke told the committee that the focus, moving forward, involves getting back to what is historically known as the “three Rs,” reading, writing and math. She said her initiatives also involve providing support and strengthening professional learning communities.
Cylke added that the focus will hinge on such critical questions as “What are the students to learn?” with support to be provided for teachers with the Common Core State Standards; “How do we know they learned it?” with a provision for assessment literacy training; and “What do we do when they do not learn?” with the solution being to improve intervention supports.
Cylke said the decision was made to place a greater emphasis on writing after the NECAP results from two years ago revealed a significant gap between reading test scores and writing scores, which were much lower. Lindsey Reilly was hired to provide literacy training for teachers and to implement Common Core State Standards across the district. She said the latest NECAP results show these efforts have paid off. “Writing, like anything else, gets better the more you practice it,” she said.
Reilly told The Times that the district began implementing Common Core State Standards last year, and received training and materials in a program called “Step Up To Writing.” All teachers are now expected to follow literacy standards for reading, writing, listening and speaking across all content areas, not just English Language Arts. This means that from art to science to social studies, there is a new emphasis being placed on non-fiction, informational writing assignments for students with corrective—yet encouraging—feedback from the teacher.
Additionally, Reilly said that all students are now required to do two major writing assignments during the year where they have to read a text and write in response to that text. There are formative assessments in place for the teacher to provide corrective feedback to the students and to inform the instruction going forward.
"There has been a steady climb in reading and major gains in writing at all of the (testing grade) levels,” said Reilly.