As often the case in urban districts, the strength of New Bedford Public Schools has seemed inexorably linked to the ebbs and flows of the local economy. But a bold plan for education reform has helped this district break that connection to boost student achievement, even as the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, continues to rebuild its economic vitality after a decades-long decline in the community’s major industries.
Dr. Jason DeFalco, the school district’s deputy superintendent, helped develop the transformational agenda that has produced consistent progress, including the movement of 12 schools up from the lower percentiles in state accountability rankings. DeFalco says that Renaissance Star 360® serves as an essential solution in the new instructional framework. “Star 360 provides a highly accurate measure of student achievement, as well as instructional planning guidance that helps our teachers personalize learning to deliver the right support to the right students. After a successful first-year pilot implementation of Star 360 in our response-to-intervention (RTI) model, we now utilize Star 360 to establish RTI groups and to do progress monitoring of student performance district-wide across second through tenth grade.”
The challenge: Improve student achievement in a high-poverty, chronically underperforming district
Located on the south coast of Massachusetts, New Bedford has a long history of economic success. In the 19th century, the city was one of the world’s foremost—and richest—whaling ports. A growing textile industry kept business booming through the 1940s. New Bedford was also home to a thriving commercial-fishing community until the mid-1990s when concerns for overfishing slowed much of that business. Today the city struggles economically, with some 23 percent of its population living below the poverty line. Among children under 18, the poverty rate exceeds 34 percent.1
Before DeFalco came to the area, New Bedford Public Schools was designated as a Level 4 district, being identified as a struggling school system based on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s analysis of four-year trends in absolute achievement, student growth, and academic improvement trends. In fact, one of the district’s schools was designated as a Level 5 and placed under receivership. It was in this difficult setting and with no budgetary windfall that DeFalco and his team were challenged to develop a turnaround plan.
The agenda for intense and broad reform included developing new curriculum and instructional models, improving human-capital services and systems, reorganizing the central office to better serve schools, bolstering parent and community-partner support, and redesigning ten of the district’s 25 schools (19 elementary, three middle schools, and three high schools) to extend the school day and year as appropriate, as well as adding subject areas, enhancing professional development services, and much more. DeFalco continues, “We also reevaluated assessment systems, ultimately concluding that our existing internal program did not provide sufficiently real-time or robust data to help drive instruction—a key requirement identified by teachers.”
The results: Assessment accuracy, near real-time data, and personalized, guided instruction
After a lengthy study of solution functionality, DeFalco elected to proceed with a pilot implementation of Star 360. He cites the assessment solution’s effectiveness as a progress-monitoring and instructional tool, noting the efficiency and accuracy of computer-adaptive tests, the tight alignment with grade-level standards, the robust reporting capability, and the nearly instantaneous availability of performance data.
Get a true picture
DeFalco describes the early results, “Immediately, Star 360 produced valuable information—but it was scary data. Compared to other internal systems, Star 360 gave us the clearest, albeit dismaying, measure of our students’ proficiency levels in relation to standards mastery. Although the scores were lower than we anticipated, teachers were able to use that data to very quickly adjust lesson plans. The real power of Star 360 is that it not only allows us to rapidly assess progress against standards, but that it helps teachers with their instructional planning. The program identifies the specific skills an individual student or group is ready to learn, then actually lays out the order in which those skills should be taught.”
DeFalco says that the district’s previous assessment program required 90 minutes to administer a single exam. “It was all paper and pencil, bubble sheets, and scanning—a nightmare in terms of resource consumption. In contrast, we can run a Star 360 assessment in just 20 to 30 minutes and have results back to teachers within 24 hours. The efficiency of the solution allows schools to run assessments as desired, typically every five weeks for our priority schools. Star 360 has proven to be extremely beneficial for progress monitoring. Because teachers know exactly how much students’ scaled scores should increase for the year, they can break that down by grading periods and closely monitor each student to ensure they’re on track.”
Assess and act
“I recently met with an elementary principal working to help a group of second and third graders struggling with English Language Arts,” comments DeFalco. “We logged in to Star 360, identified four standards where students were falling behind, then used the solution to produce an instruction plan for teaching the discrete skills associated with those standards. Two of our teachers then worked on site with our after-school care providers, training them on the standards and helping instruct students. Together they successfully closed learning gaps to see each of their students master the standards. I can tell you definitively that we could not have accomplished that without Star 360. But it’s just one example of what we can achieve when we’re able to put a great tool in the hands of our great teachers.”
New Bedford continues its efforts to develop the community and attract new businesses to the area. Designated a state Gateway City, New Bedford plays a critical role in the regional economy and partners with other urban centers to build success in an economy now more knowledge than industrial based. For its part, New Bedford Public Schools continues on an aggressive path to revitalize what was once a chronically underperforming district. Describing New Bedford Public Schools today, DeFalco says the district is systems rich and marking consistent student-performance gains. “Star 360 factors strongly in our Accelerated Improvement Plan that establishes the district’s objective to equip every graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to excel after high school. This year the Massachusetts education commissioner removed our requirement for state monitoring, acknowledging the considerable progress we’ve made in helping students learn and grow. We still have work to do, but the program we have in place gives us confidence in our ability to continue achieving successes and contributing to our community. We began with a bold plan for reform, committed to be intentional at every step, and now see the positive results taking hold.”