Skeptics might reasonably argue that fixing a school’s chronically poor reading scores takes years, not months. But at Northwest High School in Hughesville, Missouri, a determined community of educators, students, and parents implemented a reading assessment and intensive intervention program that produced double-digit proficiency gains in just two and a half months.
David Dawson is the principal at Northwest, a grade 7–12 school in west-central Missouri. Dawson says that while the district excels in its community outreach and engagement, academic distinction has been more elusive. Not content with continued below-state-average test scores, Dawson’s team kicked off a reading initiative built around Renaissance Star Reading® and Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360®. “We conducted the first Star Reading assessment early in the school year to evaluate the reading skills of each of our 160 students. Using that data with Accelerated Reader 360, we were able to quickly assign struggling students to intervention groups and begin differentiated reading practice. By our second assessment in December, 17 percent more students had achieved proficiency.”
“Renaissance solutions have allowed us to personalize growth goals and precisely monitor individual progress,” adds Northwest English teacher Ginger Newman. “But more importantly, the solutions have helped us transform our school’s culture into a literacy-rich environment where educators and students alike truly value reading.”
The challenge: Fast-track a turnaround program
Northwest High School is located in Pettis County, Missouri, a 686-square-mile area rich in farmland—think hundreds of thousands of acres for raising corn, soybeans, and cattle—but short on people. Population density averages only about 60 residents per square mile. Just 350 students attend the Northwest High and Northwest Elementary schools that comprise the entire Pettis County R-V School District.
Northwest ranks as a Class 1 high school, the smallest of the state’s five classifications. Dawson says that the school does, however, boast an outsized support team. “We’re a strong farming community where everyone pitches in, and the high school often serves as the center of events, including the wildly popular benefit dinners that fund the annual senior trip and other local programs. But as a small, rural school, we lack many of the staffing and technology resources available to larger districts. For example, we struggle to attract veteran teachers to the area, and while we’re working towards 1:1 computing, Northwest students still share devices.”
Dawson says that in this setting it’s been easy to find excuses for the school’s history of low scores on standardized tests. But in 2016, concurrent with the board of education’s adoption of the Missouri Learning Standards, Dawson’s team set out in earnest to reverse the trend. The initiative included implementation of new curriculum guides, a standards-based assessment program using Star Reading, and an intervention program built around Accelerated Reader 360. The goal was to refocus school-wide efforts on academic achievement, starting with reading proficiency.
The results: Eye-opening assessments, rapid growth, and a culture change
The decision to use Star Reading was based on the district’s application of the solution in its elementary school, as well as Dawson’s own experience using Renaissance Star Assessments® in previous positions as an English teacher and guidance counselor/testing coordinator. “Star Reading is simple to use, teachers can run an assessment in just 15–20 minutes, and we don’t have to develop some complex formula to understand exactly where each student is performing. And because the solution assesses reading achievement relative to national norms, we know how Northwest students are performing compared to other students across the country.”
Good data to make hard conversations easier
Newman worked with English teacher Allison Nye to develop the reading initiative and conduct the first assessment that showed reading abilities ranging from third grade to post-high-school levels. Newman acknowledges that overall results were as expected: not good. “Star Reading data confirmed that the majority of our students were performing below the 55th percentile. But what was staggering to learn was that 40 percent actually fell below the 25th percentile—meaning that 75 percent of students across the nation read better and with more accuracy.”
The two teachers met with every parent and student to review their Star Reading data. “Telling a ninth-grade student that he’s reading at a fifth-grade level is a hard conversation. But two important things happened. Because Star Reading presents a very detailed and accurate picture of individual reading skills, students really took ownership of the results. Using Accelerated Reader 360, we were able to show them an equally specific pathway to improvement—we didn’t just point out the problems and tell them good luck, hope it gets better. As a result, everyone—students, teachers, and community members—bought into the plan and went to work.”
Northwest’s turnaround plan included:
- Daily school-wide dedicated reading time of 15 minutes.
- Differentiated instruction based on students’ percentile ranking of Advanced (75 percent or higher), Proficient (55–74 percent), Basic (26–54 percent), or Below Basic (25 percent and below).
- Aggressive intervention for students in the Basic and Below Basic tiers: Using Accelerated Reader 360 for deep practice, educators led daily individualized interventions, along with 25-minute small-group sessions.
Several years ago, Dawson experimented with a class that gave students a full hour to read content of their own choosing. “I hoped they’d discover that reading could be as entertaining as any video game or movie. That exploratory class was beneficial, but without an intervention program, it was like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Today, using Accelerated Reader 360 in conjunction with Star Reading, we get instant feedback on performance and can easily group students based on their reading levels.
“After our first Star Reading assessment, we set up as many as eight intervention groups in each tier to really focus on deficiencies. By the second assessment, after just two months of intervention, 17 percent more students had achieved proficiency, 72 percent remained the same or increased their percentile ranking, and 13 percent moved up from the Below Basic tier.”
Reading for enjoyment
“Any initiative must show results,” Newman comments. “But the overall impact of this program to our community is bigger than the numbers. We’ve already seen a shift in the culture—everyone’s reading more. Our art teacher helped design bulletin boards so teachers can highlight their own favorite books, students are reading more nonfiction content, and they even complain if we interrupt their reading sessions.”
Dawson concurs. “One of our students, probably more comfortable steering a combine than sharing a sentiment, tracked me down after an intervention class to tell me he was ‘kind of enjoying reading.’ That comment has really stayed with me.”
“No matter what else we do as a school community, our main focus must always be on academics. We still have some distance to cover to reach school-wide proficiency, but we’re confident we have the people, program, and tools in place to make continued progress.”