One District’s Common-Core Bet: Results Are In

By Catherine Gewertz — September 09, 2013 14 min read
Dowan McNair-Lee shares a farewell hug with student Mikel Robinson after the 8th grade promotion ceremony at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in June. Last month, she and other teachers learned the results of student tests.
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Staring at multicolored rows of names and numbers on a laptop screen, Dowan McNair-Lee is searching for clues to how well she taught her students.

The 2012-13 school year was a difficult journey, as the English/language arts teacher tried to move her challenging and varied group of 8th graders to mastery of the Common Core State Standards. Now, two weeks before the 2013-14 year begins, she scrolls through year-end test scores that deliver part of the verdict on her success.

Scanning the rows of data, color-coded by achievement level, brings a roller coaster of reactions. Ms. McNair-Lee claps and beams when she notices a student who moved from the “basic” level of performance to “proficient.” “High fives!” she exclaims, raising one palm in the air. She applauds and smiles again when she scrolls a few rows down and sees another success story: a girl who had been high on the teacher’s radar because of her behavior and academic problems moved from proficient to “advanced.”

Only a moment later, Ms. McNair-Lee frowns and shakes her head. On her computer screen, she sees that two students who scored basic in 2012 slipped to “below basic” in 2013. One of them is Mikel Robinson, who seesawed academically all year long. In the end, he eluded her reach, leaving her wistful as he left her tutelage for the uncertainties of high school.

In a meeting at Watkins Elementary School last month, teachers from Stuart-Hobson Middle School comb through data from last spring's DC CAS test.

“I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. It’s over,” she says, softly. “Some of them, I sent them out well. And some of them, like Mikel, I keep wondering what more I could have done.”

Those emotional ups and downs permeate the mid-August dive into the test-score data by Ms. McNair-Lee and her colleagues from Stuart-Hobson Middle School. Trying to ignore the stuffy classroom heat and the jackhammers pounding outside, the educators spend hours bent over laptops and printouts, parsing which parts of their instruction went well last school year and which didn’t.

In classrooms all over the District of Columbia, the work of this small team is replicated as staff members from 111 schools prepare for the new year. They’re analyzing student performance on the DC CAS, the school system’s end-of-year test, by grade level, subject, student subgroup, right down to the individual academic standards themselves.

What they find will help shape this year’s teaching and instructional coaching at the school level, and curriculum resources and professional development at the district level.

The data analysis caps the second year of an unusually aggressive and comprehensive campaign to put the English/language arts common standards into practice in the nation’s capital. By turns rewarding and frustrating, the district’s work offers a flavor of what schools around the country might anticipate as they wade into the standards, which now guide learning in all but four states.

As the District of Columbia has seen, even as a vast new push to make change can produce promising results, it can’t reach every student and teacher with the support they need.

Promoting a Class

The few months before the August data sessions had been intense ones for Ms. McNair-Lee. In late April, she battened down hard with her 8th graders to prepare for the year-end tests. In the weeks that followed, she battled their exhaustion—and her own—trying to keep them focused on the material that had to be covered before graduation.

Finally, they were done. On a mid-June evening, the teenagers flooded the polished Stuart-Hobson hallways, a river of girls in white dresses, with pinned-up hair, and a stream of boys in crisp collared shirts and snazzy shoes. Just the sight of them dissolved Ms. McNair-Lee’s promise not to cry. She had taught them for two years, called them her “babies,” and knew all too well that while some would soar when they left her, others would stumble.

In an auditorium packed with family members, the students listened to speeches and songs, then rose from their seats and filed across the stage for the last time. It was Ms. McNair-Lee who called each of them by name as they came up the stairs and made their way through a line of handshakes. When it was Mikel’s turn, he crossed the stage with a serious face, then broke into a big grin when social studies teacher Sean McGrath grabbed him for a hug.

Principal Dawn Clemens took the microphone and said: “By the power vested in me, I pronounce each and every one of you a high school student.” The room erupted in cheers and camera flashes, then emptied, slowly, into hallway gridlock. Without a tissue, Ms. McNair-Lee kept wiping her cheeks as swarms of girls locked her in group hugs.

On the front steps of the school, Mikel found a moment for a farewell hug from his English teacher. Then he turned his back to the school to join his family, and they drifted off down the sidewalk in the fading evening light.

Making Headway

Six weeks later, at a middle school a few miles away, districtwide test scores were announced. At a celebratory event featuring District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, the school district lauded its progress.

While city schools are far from where they need to be, they said, with just under half of students reading on grade level, they’ve come a long way: Reading scores are 4 percentage points higher than in 2012, and 13 points higher than six years ago. (Scores in math, science, and composition rose, also.)

About This Series

How school districts move the Common Core State Standards from the central office into classrooms can make or break the undertaking. Education Week spent six months reporting on how the District of Columbia’s vision of the common-core English/language arts standards is being put into practice in one 8th grade classroom at one school, Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill.

PART 1: A school district reorganizes itself to bet big on the common core

PART 2: Beginning the second-semester press toward common-core literacy skills

PART 3: Doubling down as year-end tests approach

PART 4: Analyzing the year’s work

Reflecting on the scores in an interview over the summer, Ms. Henderson said they show that the district’s investments in curricular materials, professional development, and good teachers and principals are starting to pay off.

“This isn’t episodic success, it’s systemic success,” the chancellor said. “We saw growth at every single grade, in every ward, all the subgroups. That tells me that it’s not just dependent on the quality of the principal in one particular school. This work is landing, and landing consistently across the board.”

The district leadership team is just beginning to mine the granular messages in the score data. In the coming weeks, officials will examine the literacy results strand by strand, said Brian Pick, who oversees curriculum for the district.

But a few big themes have already emerged and are shaping the school district’s approach to 2013-14. Sixth grade literacy was a weak spot citywide and will be drawing special attention as coaching and professional development moves forward. English-language learners and African-American boys, too, are not progressing well enough.

See Also

To learn more about the manpower behind implementation of the Common Core in D.C. schools, see an interactive presentation, Common Core: A Steep Climb.

This year, the district hopes to spread and deepen its use of the response-to-intervention process—a screening strategy to see what students need—and put the right supports into place, Mr. Pick said.

“What this comes down to is building school teams’ abilities to look at individual kids and work with them and their families,” he said. “It’s not rocket science; it’s having conversations as a team about what you are going to do to serve these kids.”

Stories Within the Numbers

The team at Stuart-Hobson, one of the higher-achieving middle schools in the 45,000-student system, found no shortage of reasons to celebrate as it sat down to peruse its test scores.

Schoolwide, the proficiency rate on the DC CAS in English/language arts rose from 59 percent in 2012 to 64 percent, with even brisker growth among black students and those from low-income families. Stuart-Hobson’s performance put it head and shoulders above its school district, whose K-12 reading proficiency rose from 43 percent to 47 percent.

There were things to celebrate that don’t show up on the year-end test, too. Suspensions, for instance, had dropped significantly, thanks apparently to a special focus on behavior issues by a new dean of students and a new assistant principal.

But some of the data points brought grimaces. Proficiency rates declined for special education students. The 6th grade didn’t fare well in English/language arts. When that group of students finished 5th grade, 60 percent were proficient on the DC CAS; by the end of 6th grade, that proportion had dropped to 51 percent. A new teacher is now setting up shop in the 6th grade classroom at Stuart Hobson.

The 7th graders fared far better: Leaving 6th grade in 2012, 49 percent were reading on or above grade level. After a school year with teacher Kip Plaisted, 72 percent hit that mark. “He knocked it out of the park,” Principal Clemens said as she reviewed those figures.

Ms. McNair-Lee took her 8th graders from 60 percent proficiency to 69 percent.

With those kinds of numbers in hand, the Stuart-Hobson staff set about filling in a grid listing progress and challenges. In the coming weeks, that would morph into a school plan with goals for the new year that would be reviewed, in one-on-one meetings, by the regional superintendent and the schools chancellor.

But now, the staff members detailed, subgroup by subgroup, student by student, the “glows and grows” they found in the data.

Analyzing one 6th grade group’s work, for instance, they wrote on the “glows” side of the grid that six of 41 moved to proficient, and one special education student remained at proficient. On the “grows” side—a reference to areas needing improvement—the teachers and administrators noted that five dropped from proficient to basic, 14 remained at basic, and two dropped to below basic.

In this way, tiny detail by tiny detail, they completed the grid that would help guide the work of the coming year.

Students celebrate at Stuart-Hobson Middle School's 8th grade promotion ceremony in June.

During another data session the following week, Stuart-Hobson faculty members burrowed more deeply into their students’ performance in 2012-13, using an online tool that allows them to review test scores from many angles.

As they looked at 8th grade results, it was clear that an area of particular focus last year, reading informational text, remained a weak point. Ms. McNair-Lee’s 8th graders answered 62 percent of such questions correctly. They did better on reading literary text (72 percent correct) and on vocabulary acquisition and use (67 percent).

Within those figures, there were victories. The ability to cite evidence to support analysis of informational text—something Ms. McNair-Lee had hammered away at again and again—showed a 10-percentage-point gain from the previous year. Determining the main idea in a literary text—another strand she’d hit hard—soared by 26 percentage points.

Preparing for New Year

While drilling into her students’ data more deeply yielded some rewarding moments for Ms. McNair-Lee, it also told some painful stories, and Mikel’s was one of them.

After two years at the basic level on the English/language arts section of the DC CAS, he’d slipped to below basic. Of 113 Stuart-Hobson 8th graders tested, only nine scored low enough to be in that bottom category. While his peers averaged more than 60 percent correct in each of the test’s three strands, he was getting fewer than one-third of the questions right.

One comfort for Ms. McNair-Lee: Mikel’s score was on the high end of below basic. Just one more point and he would have scored basic.

Suddenly quiet, she shuts her eyes tight, shaking her head. She’s haunted by what she might have overlooked.

But it’s just a week away from a new school year, and she can’t hang back. She has to look ahead now, to her new role at Stuart-Hobson: overseeing a schoolwide enrichment program.

All around her, colleagues are parsing the minutiae of the test scores. At one table, the new 6th grade teacher, Matt Foster, works on a laptop with Stuart-Hobson’s reading-intervention specialist, Beth Dewhurst, using the forensic-data tool to locate test scores for all incoming 6th graders.

Getting a glimpse this way of his incoming students, Mr. Foster takes careful notes. It would be even better to have the data earlier, though, Ms. Dewhurst says.

The Players


Chief of Teaching and Learning
District of Columbia schools

• Oversees curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development
• Led the design of optional instructional units and modules, along with required interim assessments and professional development, for common standards
Read his profile, “Glimpses of Poverty Lead Administrator to Education”


Instructional Coach
Stuart-Hobson Middle School

• 13 years teaching; her second year as a coach
• One of 105 coaches who work with teachers in nearly every school
Read her profile, “Instructional Coach Jumps Into New Standards”


Principal Fellow
District of Columbia public schools

• In 2012-13, one of two assistant principals at Stuart-Hobson; English/language arts and academic interventions were among her responsibilities
• In 2013-14, in a program that prepares her to be a principal
Read her profile, “Administrator Seeks Sure Footing as Instructional Leader”


Gifted and Talented Coordinator
Stuart-Hobson Middle School

• 11 years teaching, including eight at Stuart-Hobson
• In 2012-13, 8th grade teacher and department chair in English/language arts
Read her profile, “Teacher Finds Salvation in the Classroom”


9th Grade Student
Eastern High School

• In 2012-13, an 8th grade student at Stuart-Hobson Middle School
Read his profile, “Eighth Grader Looks Ahead to High School and Beyond”

— Catherine Gewertz

“Next year, we’re going to make nice in the spring with all the principals [in feeder schools that] send us students. That way, we’ll have this pipeline open earlier,” she said.

Across the room, Mr. Plaisted, the 7th grade English/language arts teacher, and Christopher Purdy, a special education teacher, are using the test-score data to brief Monica Green, who’s assumed Ms. McNair-Lee’s perch in 8th grade. It’s a passing of the torch, a conveyance of far more than test scores.

Scrolling through the display on his laptop screen, Mr. Plaisted points one by one to students, discussing their scores, as well as their areas of academic strength and weakness, their home lives, personality quirks, and other information that will help Ms. Green anticipate their needs.

One student “is a sweet kid, and he tries,” Mr. Plaisted tells her. “We could tap into that.” Another student’s scores don’t reflect his reading ability. “I think he can read well,” Mr. Plaisted tells Ms. Green, “but when it comes down to the questions on the test, it throws him. It’s the test-taking.”

For other students, it’s the reverse: “This guy scored advanced only because he had a lucky day,” Mr. Plaisted says. And, “This kid never understood ‘main idea’ to save his life. He’s always focused on minute details.”

In this way, the teachers analyze every student at each level of performance, discussing the prospects for moving them further along.

A pivotal difference in their discussion flows from an important change this year to the district’s accountability system. Instead of being credited only for students who reach proficiency, schools now receive credit for each upward move a student makes on the performance scale.

The four levels on the test—below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced—are now divided into seven. That allows a school to earn 20 points on the district’s accountability index when a child moves up even within one of those bands, from “low below basic” to “high below basic,” for instance.

The change is meant to encourage teachers to focus not just on the “bubble kids” poised to move into

proficiency, but on all students regardless of their place on the performance spectrum.

The August data sessions flowed into a schoolwide improvement plan for Stuart-Hobson that includes the goal of reaching 70 percent proficiency in reading this school year. Better coordinating the work of the three English/language arts teachers and working with teachers across the curriculum on techniques to help students master complex text will be key strategies in reaching that goal.

A New Focus

The District of Columbia system’s focus on the common standards in reading now moves into year 3, but layered on top is a push into the writing standards. That new priority was front and center in a late-August professional-development day.

Spread across classrooms on two floors of a high school, secondary-level teachers hunker down with instructional coaches to work on sentence composition.

Stuart-Hobson’s Matt Foster is here, with other 6th grade teachers, in a session co-led by Sarah Hawley, Stuart-Hobson’s assigned instructional coach. Mr. Plaisted joins 7th grade teachers across the hall, and Ms. Green does likewise with her 8th grade group.

Echoing the session leaders in the other rooms, Ms. Hawley guides her 6th grade teachers in an exercise about subordinating conjunctions. They’re learning how to work this kind of instruction into a class study of a text, instead of teaching it in isolation. They’re exploring how to “scaffold” the ideas, so all students can grasp them.

In the coming months, other professional-development sessions will focus on composing sentences and building paragraphs. Working with their own coaches at their schools this year, teachers will bring samples of their students’ work to analyze and to inform their instructional plans.

As Ms. Hawley begins shaping this year’s coaching plans for the teachers, she factors in a complex blend of teachers’ and students’ needs, test-score data, last year’s emphasis on text complexity and close reading, and this year’s move into the writing standards.

Two of the three English/language arts teachers are new to Stuart-Hobson this year, so new working relationships must be formed. There is much to do, and already the big clocks in each classroom serve as a constant reminder.

Other things have changed at Stuart-Hobson, too. Katie Franklin, who oversaw English/language arts as one of two assistant principals, is now in a district program that prepares her to become a principal. Inheriting her duties is Katherine Turner, an outgoing and energetic import from a nearby charter school.

Ms. McNair-Lee has given up her classroom to direct a new schoolwide enrichment program that allows students to study through the lens of something they’re interested in.

Even though Ms. McNair-Lee was ready for something new, leaving her classroom was still causing pangs in her belly as the new year began. She’ll keep her hand in teaching, though, working with students on projects.

She’ll think about last year’s students, the ones she greeted every morning with her standard line: “Good morning, scholars.” As the summer heat wanes, they’re learning their way around the unfamiliar campuses of high schools across the city.

One of those students—one of those she worries about most—is starting out in his new high school with an uncertain hold on important skills. And as Mikel disappears into those wide, crowded hallways, where no teacher knows his name yet, his former teacher wonders how he’s doing, and she crosses her fingers.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as D.C. Teachers Tally Results of Year’s Work


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