For college-bound high school seniors, weak test scores in the spring can mean remedial courses on campus in the fall. How big a deal could that be? As it turns out, huge. An academic counselor at Helena College in Montana cites a troubling finding that suggests only three percent of first-year college students needing two or more remedial math or literacy courses will graduate. That stark prediction is just one of the reasons Helena Public School educators in Helena, Montana, prioritize college and career readiness for their K–12 students.
Data and Assessment Administrator Dr. Jilyn Chandler says the district’s efforts begin at the elementary level. “A number of years ago, we ran regression analyses to identify issues common to students dropping out of high school. We found that many of those students struggled with pre-algebra and in some cases actually started falling behind on third-grade fractions—and they never caught up. That finding triggered a number of district actions, including the formation of professional learning communities (PLCs) that we implemented with fidelity, and the adoption of a K–8 student assessment program built on Renaissance Star Math® and Renaissance Star Reading®.”
“The combination of robust assessment data and a collaborative process that emphasizes student learning has helped drive rapid, dramatic gains in student achievement. This year, for example, more than 55 percent of our fifth graders ranked above the 80th percentile on Star Math assessments. That ranking qualifies them for advanced math classes in the sixth grade and sets them on a course that we know from cohort data leads to success on ACT college-readiness benchmarks.”
The challenge: Improve graduation rates
The Helena Public Schools district is comprised of 11 elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools, and one alternative school, collectively serving some 8,000 students. When Chandler originally joined the district as an assistant high school principal more than ten years ago, one of the primary objectives was to develop a plan for improving graduation rates. “All of our strategies– which included early interventions, collaborative teaching teams, updated curricular resources, focused professional development, and more productive parent involvement–hinged on our ability to derive better data from better benchmarking. But at the time, the only assessment tools available to us were state standardized tests and a limited-scope placement test. To be successful, we knew we needed more timely data and greater precision to identify areas for remediation and growth.”
Chandler says the district team evaluated a variety of benchmarking tools, opting at the conclusion of that process to implement a one-year audit of Renaissance Star Assessments® based on their functionality for deep data analysis and reporting, as well as the district’s track record of success using Renaissance Accelerated Math® and Renaissance Accelerated Reader® in a variety of K–12 settings. “Star Assessments were easy for our teachers to learn (without adding to their workload), enabled us to do more comprehensive testing in less time, and gave teachers, students, and parents fast access to actionable data.”
The results: Rapid growth, math excellence, and college readiness
Chandler acknowledges that first year was not without challenges. “Early on, some educators felt intimidated by the data. And achievement results on our first assessments were disheartening. But it didn’t take long for teachers to learn the system, start digging into their own data, and identify areas for growth—which, by the way, included fractions and measurements. The deeper we analyzed the data, typically in our PLCs, the more effectively we were able to attack specific weaknesses. Within months we started tallying real successes using data to drive decisions and improve learning. I’ve worked in four different school districts, and this is the fastest I’ve seen such positive change happen.”
“At year end, we made the decision to standardize Star Math for all students in first grade (and kindergarten at teachers’ discretion) through eighth grade across the district. Star Assessments have become integral to our problem-solving and planning processes. We cannot talk about curricular resources, professional development, technology, special education services, or any part of the PLC process without using data.”
The district has since added Star Reading and Renaissance Star Early Literacy®, standardizing the solutions across grades K–8. District educators run Star benchmark assessments a minimum of three times annually and as needed throughout the year for progress monitoring. Chandler estimates that benchmarks typically take just 20 minutes for students to complete—in contrast to multi-day Smarter Balanced Assessment and other tests—and provide immediate feedback. Data is also automatically synchronized every 24 hours between the Star application and the district’s PowerSchool student information system, ensuring access to the most up-to-date reporting information and eliminating manual loading and management of student data. Star data informs discussions with both students and parents, helping district educators communicate more effectively—without waiting for formal parent/teacher conferences—and offer personalized guidance for improving specific skills.
“Districts such as ours could reasonably expect to see five percent of students perform at the 95th percentile or above on Star Math assessments,” continues Chandler. “This year 19 percent of our fifth graders achieved a score of 95 percent or higher. When we started testing fifth graders four years ago, only 73 percent were at benchmark. Today that number is 85 percent. Although earlier in our implementation of Star Reading, we’re also observing notable literacy improvements. Most recent results indicate some 30 percent of our fifth graders are performing at or above the 80th percentile.”
Education for college and workplace success
Chandler says Helena educators expect such achievement gains to ultimately result in higher high school graduation rates, but emphasizes that enhanced learning is not a short-term goal. “Of course graduation is important, but our overarching goal is to educate students, to help them master the skills they need to succeed in college and the workplace. In past years, Helena students underperformed their peers on the state’s tests. This year our students exceeded the state average in every grade level (3–8), scoring anywhere from two to 14 percentage points above the state average. We’re proud of our success and want to show by example that dramatic achievement gains are possible when you combine a robust application like Star Assessments with supportive PLCs and focused objectives.”
“It really is simple; the data guides all who work with our children to set achievable academic goals that lead to college and career readiness. The dedication of our teachers and support staff, constant communication with our families, leadership of building principals, and expertise from central office administration is our recipe for success.”
Chandler summarizes by noting that although they are less quantifiable, social and emotional learning benefits such as grit, resilience, organization, responsibility, teamwork, and leadership skills can also be linked to the district’s academic progress. “You can’t put a number on grit, resilience, or cooperation, but when you walk in our classrooms, you can feel the change. The positive energy and enthusiasm for learning is unmistakable.”