Modest district-wide gains in state-mandated test scores have pleasantly surprised city school officials over the past year, but drastic increases in one elementary school’s marks have educators wondering whether they can be repeated elsewhere.
According to statistics compiled by A+ Schools, a Pittsburgh group that advocates for improving public education, the chance that a fifth-grade student at Fulton Elementary, in Highland Park, is now proficient in reading and math has jumped by nearly 50 percent in a single year.
Results from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) show that nearly 70 percent of Fulton’s fifth-graders in 2007 were proficient in reading, while more than 75 percent earned the same designation in math. In the fifth-grade class of 2006, by contrast, only 25 percent of students ranked proficient in reading, while 29 percent were proficient in math.
The scores are especially pleasing considering Fulton’s demographics. About 90 percent of the PreK-5 school’s students are African American; more than 80 percent are eligible for free/reduced lunches. Traditionally, concentrations of poverty have worked against academic success, and racial achievement gaps plague the city schools. Across the district last year, white students in grades three, five, eight and 11 turned in test scores 33.7 percentage points better in reading than their black peers.
“I think it’s potentially very promising,” says Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, of Fulton’s improvement.
As for the scores being a fluke, Harris says, “There’s always a chance that could be the case,” especially since they measure only “cohorts of kids.” Next year’s scores, she says, will measure a whole different class of students taking the fifth-grade PSSA exam.
Even so, says Harris, “It’s a starting place for a lot of discussion.”
After viewing the scores, Harris says, she “had a lot of questions,” particularly, “What’s that principal doing?”
“I attribute our success to a whole lot of things,” says Kevin Bivins, Fulton’s principal since the start of the 2006-07 school year. “We changed the mindset of the school.”
Through rigorous curricula, “data-driven instruction” and the addition of curriculum coaches — all of which are part of the district’s “Excellence for All” agenda — Bivins says he and his staff were able to reverse the school’s performance course.
“There was no reason for those scores to be what they were,” he says, referring to previous years’ substandard marks, which were well below district averages. “Those scores weren’t showing our true ability.”
Bivins says one obstacle he faced in improving scores was “getting teachers to believe that kids can do harder work.
“Instead of giving them chicken feed, put some steak on their plate.”
When he first started at Fulton, Bivins says “things were at a comfort level,” and he had to convince the school that “things could get better.”
In many ways, Bivins says, “All I did was what [Superintendent Mark] Roosevelt did, but on a smaller level.
“Roosevelt opened things up and said, ‘Find a way to reach the students.’”
Unfortunately, not every school — let alone every student — has improved as quickly, and significantly, as Fulton.
From 2005 to 2007, reading-proficiency scores for the combined grades of three, five, eight and 11 increased 9 percent across the city schools. Officials were happy to announce those improvements, which they did not expect in just the second year of Roosevelt’s sweeping reform plan. Scores for the district’s other elementary schools have remained steady for the most part. Some have seen modest increases in scores, others slight decreases. But none have seen improvement remotely close to Fulton’s.
Such improvement from the primarily black elementary school is “impressive,” says District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh. “It shows all students can learn.”
“Every school is different,” explains Harris. “That could be why the same approaches might not work at every school. But you have to assess if there’s any applicability to other schools in the system.”
“We have to look and see what’s working,” Pugh agrees. “We’re making changes based on our evaluations.”
Pugh says Bivins is “looking at data so he can inform his instruction,” which helps students reach their full potential.
Overall, she says, there’s no cause for concern just because other schools haven’t seen the same jumps in test scores. “We need to stay with our plan.”
That’s what Bivins is doing. He says he plans on sticking with what’s worked during his first year as Fulton’s principal, and maintaining the sense of “urgency” he’s instilled in his staff.
“I think we can get better,” he says. “We want to be like the Yankees. We want to set that trend.”