DD2 aspires to lead way in promoting college, career readiness

  • Thursday, July 25, 2013

Elementary school, middle school, high school. Logic holds that teachers at each school, in each grade, be able to look at a child’s school record and see what and how they have learned, where their specific weaknesses are, how they best learn.
Not so.
What they can see are grades and state test scores but, in most instances, these assessments do not offer a teacher formative information. They don’t maximize the opportunity for understanding and monitoring student achievement.
“It’s all piecemeal,” says Dorchester District Two Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Dr. Sean Alford. “Currently the state’s assessment system is not contiguous, the way it is designed it can’t be longitudinal…it doesn’t maximize the opportunity for understanding and monitoring true student achievement.”
Imagine the difference it would make to each student if every year, their teachers could look at their educational achievements comparatively in order to create the most beneficial learning opportunity for that student. In order to have a continuum of assessment for each year of a student’s academic career. In order to know what the student knows and what they are ready to learn next. For business leaders to have a clearer understanding of a student/potential employee’s skill set and potential contribution to the workforce.
This is the district’s vision and what it hopes to achieve through its request to the state Legislature and state Board of Education to pilot a longitudinal assessment system and receive a waiver from state and federal accountability requirements at least for the next two years and, if successful, possibly for all school districts in South Carolina.
 (The current accountability assessment requirements are either PARCC or Smarter Balance – the two choices offered by the federal government with the Common Core Standard. Both have been seen, by states, to have issues.)
Instead of utilizing either of these, says Alford, the district would use ACT standards and assessment tools which are aligned with common core standards, and offer much more to the district and its students.
DD2 is one of 18 districts in South Carolina with a rating of Excellent on its 2012 state report card and a letter grade of A on its 2012 federal report card. Five of these districts will be chosen by the state Board of Education to take part in this pilot.
DD2 learned Tuesday that of those districts only five actually applied to take part. Further, it is the only district that will use the assessment in all of its schools from the onset.
We are leading the pack, says Superintendent of Schools, Joe Pye.
The proposal has passed through the state House and Senate resulting in a joint resolution “to allow performing and innovative school districts to implement alternative assessments that promote college and career readiness.” Key in this and the writing of the proviso was Senator Paul Campbell and Representative Jenny Horne.
The district will still have to administer the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards in grades 3 through 8 in social studies and the state end-of-course assessment program. And, unless otherwise provided for in law, students graduating in 2014 and 2015 will still have to pass all exit exam requirements.
“It is imperative for us to be able to use every opportunity to monitor our students’ [learning].” In order to do this, he says, the district would rather utilize the suite of assessments from ACT.
Many may be familiar with the ACT as a college placement exam along with the SAT.
SATs, he explains, are about aptitude – a projection of potential performance. ACTs, on the other hand, are criterion based – they measure what is known now.
“ACT has established college and career benchmarks focused on grades 8 through 12 culminating in the ACT college entrance exam.
ACT has developed an assessment suite from grade 3 up. Each grade is measure by the same scale, the same criterion, he says.
“We would be comparing apples to apples [using ACT assessments],” he explains, “and would be able to follow a child’s growth and know what that child will be able to do when he or she graduates.”
The business community, he continues, has expressed concern that graduates can’t segue into careers – they’re not ready.
ACT is accepted by all four-year colleges and universities across the country and many two-year colleges including Trident Tech.
“The cornerstone of the whole initiative is that we want a way to determine if a graduate is ready to be a strong, contributing member of the workforce either with or without a four year college degree…we want this for every student,” Alford emphasizes.
ACT assessments will offer data showing if an underclassman, who has met graduation requirements, would benefit from an additional year of math or English, for example, he says.
“For parents, ACT assessments will allow them to help their child’s journey in a much more hands-on way,” he says.
This initiative, says Alford, will advance DD2’s quest to become a “world class” school district. The district hopes that its efforts will initiate the development of a statewide and national accountability system with the aid of the Education Oversight Committee and State Board of Education for the school year 2015-2016.
By improving the understanding of their achievement for students and their families, the number and amount of scholarships earned will increase.
Participating students will earn a national work-ready certificate relevant to the national business community (also aligned to the Governor’s South Carolina Work Ready Communities Initiative). All students would participate in a nationally recognized college admissions assessment with placement scores available at the beginning of their senior year.
And the school district would realize the cost benefit of longitudinal assessment. Through digital administration, consistent training and timely reporting, the district will incur a cost savings.
“If accepted by the Education Oversight Committee and State Board of Education,” explains Alford, “as of the next school year, every single 11th and 12th grader will take the assessment in order for them to get the skills the assessment determines are missing.”
This will also help the “high-flying” students, says Alford, those who take high school courses in middle school to complete the current requirement as of their sophomore year.
The ACT assessments include Aspire – vertically articulated CCSS-based digital system of assessment for grades 3 to 12; Quality Core – research driven solutions for strengthening high school curriculum; the ACT – 11th and 12th grade curriculum-based assessment for learning outcomes; Compass – computer adaptive technical college placement test; WorkKeys – 11th and 12th grade job skills assessment for workforce readiness.
These assessments, says Alford, will extend the end of course exams from four to nine or ten and compare results not just with others in South Carolina but with national results as well.
“Using this [ACT] builds in national curriculum and incorporates Common Core but goes way beyond to college and career readiness,” says Alford. “We want our kids to be ready for high-quality post-secondary opportunities.”
“In the past,” he offers, as an analogy, “it is like we have been training for a race without being told how long it is…we’ve had no end goal, no finish line. With this, we do. We can look at a parent and tell them their child has scored successfully and will get into the college of his or her choice…or is ready to go straight into a well-paying job, not just a minimum wage job. We will be connected and qualified for the future.”
“This proviso is our attempt to blaze a trail in the woods, provide clarity and relevancy for our community stakeholders and engage more students and parents in the process of teaching and learning.”
Alford says he and the district have been working on this since last December. It is now before the Education Oversight Committee, which will, he is quite optimistic, approve the initiative and recommend it to the state Board of Education. Once that SCBOE okays it, the SCBOE will have to apply to the feds for a waiver.
“It is in the best interest of our kids…an assessment system that every stakeholder in the community can wrap their arms around,” says Alford.
The stakeholders, of whom he speaks, heard about this program for the first time at the annual stakeholders luncheon Wednesday. 
“I can’t believe that someone has finally seen the need to respond to the business community,” was the response Alford says he got from Allen Wutzdorff, executive director at The Education Foundation of the Charleston Metro chamber of Commerce.
Other stakeholders attending included representatives of the Summerville Chamber of Commerce, the Dorchester Economic Development Council, ACT, DD2, Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester Council of Governments and Trident Technical College. Representatives from Boeing and Bosch had scheduling conflicts but are enthusiastic, says Alford.
Following the luncheon, Alford says DD2 was invited to come address the various boards of the organizations attending, which will, in turn, support the district at the state level, part of the requirement of the EOC.
Pye, laughed when he told attendees that he was skeptical when he was first approached by Alford and his team with such an innovative idea. “So,” he said, “I took it to my secondary principals who said ‘finally’. I then took it to the elementary principals who ate it up.” He is now fully on board and very excited.
“We already have a high-quality district,” he told stakeholders, “but we have heard that some of our graduates have to take remedial courses once they arrive at Trident or that can’t be hired because they are not ready. So we needed to fix this.”
The district is not worried about the federal waiver, they say, because Alabama has already received one to use the same assessment system.
“The feds are supportive of innovative districts,” says Alford, who also noted that the district has already presented this initiative to members of both the EOC and the BOE, all of whom were impressed and supportive and told them it was “what we’ve been looking for.”
The EOC meets August 8. EOC Executive Director Melanie Barton is carefully enthusiastic. “DD2 is very innovative,” she says, “to move ahead before Smarter Balance [the assessment South Carolina has chosen] is ready. They came up with the idea and the EOC was ecstatic to work with them. If the EOC approves it, and at this point I see no obstacles to approval, it will create a modified district report card so parents will clearly understand where the district is.”
Further, she says, “the state of Alabama has set a precedent with something very similar that has gained federal approval. If this works [in DD2] it may well be something the state wants to consider [for its statewide assessment model].”
 “We have an obligation to make sure every student is ready for whichever path they choose, college or workforce.”

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