On October 17, the Superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood School District and his staff reported to the Board of Education regarding the results of the first year of consolidating levels 3 and 4 for Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies in 7th grade (aka “deleveling” or “leveling up”). In response, alternate spins of the data have been whirling around on Patch, on Maplewood Online, and in private conversations.
Frankly, most of the spinning misses the point.
The conversations leading up to the decision to delevel 7th grade described a broken system — a system that was harming children. Substantial numbers of children were being written off by early labeling, sorting, and tracking. Children were being placed in classes that they and their parents were told were “college prep” but that did not actually lay the educational foundation necessary to succeed in college. The leveling system was rigid, and it was virtually impossible to break out of lower levels and successfully move up to the true college prep classes, mislabeled “honors classes.” As early as age eleven or twelve, children were being permanently channeled into a path to nowhere.
In an Op-Ed published on Patch on October 24, 2011, Jeffrey Bennett argued that one year of deleveled classes had failed to raise test scores or reduce the achievement gap. Despite what Bennett and other critics claim now, deleveling Language Arts, Science and Social Studies in 7th grade was never promoted as a silver bullet that would single-handedly conquer the achievement gap overnight.
Instead, deleveling is one part of a broader set of reforms which must all work together in order to enhance teaching and learning for all students and combat the pernicious gap. Other necessary pieces include early intervention, programs in the elementary schools before the gap starts to widen, more focus on core academic subjects to provide a stronger foundation for success, innovative curriculum revisions that inspire greater engagement, targeted teacher professional development, a rigorous and consistent system for evaluating teachers, intervention for struggling students, and providing support for parents. None of these initiatives can, in isolation, overcome the achievement gap. All of them together offer hope of stronger schools for all of our students.
In order to begin to assess the early outcomes of this one piece of the puzzle – deleveling 7th grade – the questions we must ask include:
- Did the students originally recommended for Level 3 benefit from the change?
- Were the students originally recommended for Level 4 harmed by deleveling?
- What additional changes might improve outcomes for all students?
- Where do we go from here?
A note about data: We cannot determine the success or failure of deleveling by looking only at scores on standardized tests.1 We must look at multiple data points in order to develop the best picture of the outcomes. These include: grades; qualitative assessments, including teacher observations and comparisons of student work; level placement recommendations for 8th grade; and standardized test scores.
Did the students originally recommended for Level 3 benefit from the Level 4 curricula?
The preliminary answer is yes. Many students who were originally recommended for Level 3 courses (“leveled up students”) appear to have benefited from the Level 4 curricula.
Seventh grade teachers and administrators gave a strong vote of confidence for this change at the October Board meeting. They spoke about the positive effects the change had on school climate, and on student attitudes and behavior. They described how students who were originally recommended for Level 3 took the higher expectations seriously and strove to meet them, many with success, and how many students who had historically been disengaged rose to the challenge. These professionals educate and care for our children every day, and their observations speak to the biggest reason for the change — undoing the harm of implying to students and their families that they cannot succeed.
It is also encouraging to observe how last year’s leveled up students are placed in 8th grade this year. Approximately half of leveled up students stayed in Level 4 courses for 8th grade. These students have a much better chance of a successful path to college and career than they would have, had we stuck with the previous leveled system.2 In comparison, only about one quarter of 7th grade students in Level 3 courses in 2009/2010 moved up to Level 4 courses for 8th grade.3
We also have more information on outcomes of deleveling 6th grade, since this took place more than 5 years ago. These results are promising: the percentage of kids achieving Proficient or Advanced Proficient on NJASK went from 62% to 76% in English Language Arts during the past four years.
Were students harmed by the change?4
Fortunately, objective data do not demonstrate any harm to students originally recommended for level 4. Exam scores remained the same and NJASK scores dropped less than the average for our DFG (district factor group — a collection of school districts deemed similar). Some parents are still concerned that the consolidation of levels might water down the curriculum. In addition, there are signs of possible grade inflation, given the increase in As and Bs for students originally recommended for Level 4. It is not clear that grade inflation, in itself, harms children – especially if children are simply doing better as a result of innovations in curriculum, such as those in the ELA program. However, these data may suggest a need for further differentiated instruction for the more advanced students to keep them engaged and challenged.
We should be reassured by administrator and teacher reports, but also concerned by some parents’ reports that their children are not adequately challenged. As always, we must continue to seek evidence that children are being challenged, and that teachers are being supported to meet the needs of all the students in their classrooms.
An analysis of grades shows that some leveled up students struggled and there was an increase in Ds and Fs compared to students in Level 3 in 2009/2010.5 There is no reason to be surprised by this, however, or see it as harmful, since leveled up students were taught and graded on a more rigorous curriculum than level 3 students were the prior year. Deleveling was designed to provide equal opportunities for success – and equal access to a rigorous curriculum. It was not designed to, and cannot, guarantee equal results. Were there some students who struggled in the new “leveled up” classes? Yes, of course. This was expected, and in fact can be taken as an indication that the curriculum was not watered down.
Despite their struggles, the grades these students earned were more accurate reflections of what they learned and what they still need to learn. It benefits students more to know the true standard and what they have to do to meet it, than to coast along passing classes in an inadequate curriculum with the deluded belief they are prepared for “college and career.”
It will be important to monitor whether students struggle as much this year. The current 7th grade class is the first group of students to have had 25% more instructional time in the core subjects in 6th grade. This increased instructional time in English Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies is intended to provide a stronger foundation in the core subjects for 6th graders, thus positioning them for better future success. Ongoing efforts to improve the curriculum, professional development for teachers, and other initiatives focused on student performance and teacher improvement may also lead to positive changes.
What additional changes might improve outcomes?
More needs to be done to examine grading practices and to ensure challenging work is provided to all students wherever they may enter from, including the most advanced students, and to provide more support for students who are struggling.
It is critical to monitor how much students are struggling this year, and hold the district accountable for identifying and providing appropriate supports for those who require it in order to be successful with more rigorous curriculum.
The possibility of grade inflation should be investigated. Work samples collected for a qualitative evaluation of deleveling should be further analyzed with this question in mind. If there was grade inflation, then the district will need to devise a plan for addressing this going forward. This should include clarification of what grades should mean in middle school, how they are computed, and what the requirements are to earn each grade.
More also needs to be explained about the differentiated instruction being offered to keep all students engaged. Particular attention must be paid to ensuring rigor for students who are ready to move ahead more quickly.
These issues must remain part of the conversation at Board of Education meetings and other forums in the coming months. But the need to continue to expand on differentiated instruction and increase rigor at the top of the scale should not lead us to overlook or discount the benefits we have already seen.
Where do we go from here?
Bennett and other opponents of leveling up would have us believe that no additional changes can take place until 7th grade deleveling is definitively proven to improve test scores and eliminate or narrow the achievement gap.
I would turn that around. We have a system that is broken and that needs to be fixed. Twelve years old is far too young to be told that you are destined to fail. That is the message we were sending to many students under the previous structure. That message is intolerable and cannot continue to blight children’s future prospects.
The first year’s outcomes of deleveling three subjects in 7th grade are encouraging:
- Deleveling provided opportunities for growth to students who would have been harmed under the previous system.
- Many of these students used the opportunity well and are better positioned for future success as a result.
- There is no evidence that students originally recommended for Level 4 were harmed by deleveling.
Many other initiatives to support struggling students and strengthen the curriculum for all students are currently underway, which are showing promise. We should move forward with these reforms, constantly trying to improve outcomes for all students, and continually monitoring to make sure we are doing no harm. All of our children need and deserve a system that is flexible, that meets their needs, and that challenges them to grow.
For those interested in delving more deeply into the details:
Note 1 – NJASK is designed to measure whether schools are conveying state mandated content to their students. NJASK is not designed to determine student placement, or to test the rigor of a particular curriculum, or to assess individual students' full range of achievement or potential. In addition, we only have one year’s worth of data for a very small sample size, and changes to the English Language Arts test for grade 7 in 2011 make comparisons to prior years’ scores unreliable.
Note 2 - Past analyses show that 88% of students participating in level 4 classes in grade 11 were participating in level 4 classes or higher in grade 8, and that students who are in level 4 in grade 11 are more than 3 times as likely to graduate college as students in level 3 courses in grade 11.
Note 3 - Chart number 5 of Mr. Roth’s presentation to the Board analyzes where leveled up students were placed for 8th grade. In 2009/2010, approximately one quarter of students in Level 3 courses in 7th grade were placed in Level 4 courses for 8th grade (25% moved up in Language Arts, 20% in Science, and 28% in Social Studies). In comparison, approximately half of last year’s leveled up students were placed in Level 4 courses for 8th grade (49% stayed in Level 4 for Language Arts, 47% for Science, and 53% for Social Studies).
Note 4 – NJASK results do not directly address the question of harm, especially in light of the decline in 2010/2011 Language Arts grade 7 NJASK scores across the State. The mean score went down by 5.8 points for South Orange Maplewood leveled up students compared to level 3 students the year before, by 4.3 points for Level 4 students, and by 6.3 points for all students in our District Factor Group (aka DFG – a grouping of school districts of similar socio-economic levels). This means that both leveled up students and level 4 students declined less than the average decline for our DFG. At the same time, the number of students scoring partially proficient was significantly greater for leveled up students than the average for our DFG. There is no way to tell whether either phenomena – the favorable rate of decline in scale scores compared to our DFG, or the increase in partially proficient scores – are connected to deleveling or are a function of the changes to the test.
Note 5 – Leveled up students’ final grades saw an increase in Ds and Fs compared to students in Level 3 in 2009/2010.
• 18.5% failed English Language Arts compared to 14% in 2009/2010
• 21.6% failed Science compared to 10% in 2009/2010
• 22.5% failed Social Studies compared to 18% in 2009/2010