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Data from state test scores shows significant gaps in student achievement and growth between fifth and sixth grades

The Newberg School District's performance on the Smarter Balanced state assessment for the 2016-2017 school year was down overall and district leaders have continued to acknowledge that improvement remains a high priority, but Newberg public schools still exceeded state averages in terms of the percentage of students grading as proficient.

One major exception, however, comes at the middle school level, as the latest state test results confirmed that both achievement and growth drop off significantly from fifth to sixth grade.

That was the major point of concern after director of data and assessment Derek Brown presented a student achievement report to the school board Oct. 10, but Superintendent Kym LeBlanc-Esparza stressed that efforts had already begun before the start of the school year and that vigorous discussions about how to further address the problem are ongoing.

"So it's really making sure we're keeping that culture of care going from kindergarten through grade 12 and we're doing everything we can to help these kids succeed," District Communications Coordinator Autumn Foster said. "I think that's really what the goal was in presenting this data. We do have some significant work to do, but we are starting on it and we have been. We're looking at what are the tools, programs, opportunities that we have to help with that transition."

In three years of testing with the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the percentage of students grading as proficient (earning a 3 or 4 rating) has been significantly and persistently lower in sixth grade than fifth, especially in English Language Arts (ELA) and math.

Newberg experienced it's biggest gap in ELA this past year at 14.8 points, as 61.6 percent of district fifth grade students were proficient compared to 46.8 for sixth grade, but the average gap over three years has been 12.63 points. The gap in math in 2016-2017 was 13.2 points, with 47.0 percent of fifth grade students passing versus 33.8 for sixth grade, with the three-year average coming in at 14.43 points.

The gap in science scores has also been steady, with an average difference of 6.43 points, but are not quite as comparable because science is only tested in eighth grade at the middle school level.

The numbers are also discouraging when following, at least roughly, the same group of students from year to year, for which there is now two years of data. For example, proficiency in math for district fifth grade students fell from 51.7 percent in 2015-2016 to 33.8 percent for sixth grade students in 2016-2017, a 17.9 point drop. That came on the heels of a 14.6 point drop the year before, with ELA rates crashing down 19.5 points from 66.3 percent to 46.8 last year.

The state uses a different figure, median growth percentile, to track systematic or typical growth from year to year more accurately. The calculation takes the median student in any group, from grade level to sub-groups like English Language Learners, race and socio-economic status, and compares how their test scores improved compared to students across the state who scored similarly. A score of 50, therefore, means a student improved at the state average.

When looking at both the overall class and various sub-groups, the gap in median growth percentile did not paint a pretty picture of the transition from fifth to sixth grade in Newberg, as the figure for fifth grade in ELA (56) in 2016-2017 was double that of sixth grade (28). In math, the median growth percentage for fifth grade was 59 compared to 33 for sixth.

"We're seeing that's an area where we're really dropping off," Foster said. "Last year was the first year we really identified this because it was the second year of Smarter Balanced, so now we have three years of data for Smarter Balanced. Now we can say that wasn't a fluke and it is a trend."

In addition to persistent gaps among sub-groups in fifth and sixth grades, some of the median growth percentiles were low in sixth grade for 2016-2017, including males (27), Hispanic/Latino (25), White (35), English Language Learners (33), students with disabilities (29). Those figures were all higher for seventh grade and generally leveled out in eighth grade, signaling that students are struggling with the transition to sixth grade and not throughout middle school, although the overall figures for seventh (44) and eighth grade (45) were still below the state average.

"We're seeing that's an area where we're really dropping off," Foster said. "Last year was the first year we really identified this because it was the second year of Smarter Balanced, so now we have three years of data for Smarter Balanced. Now we can say that wasn't a fluke and it is a trend."

LeBlanc-Esparza told the board that the low middle school figures contributed to a shuffling of building principals, including a change in leadership at Mountain View Middle School, as relatively inexperienced (in terms of administration) Michelle Patton was moved to Mabel Rush Elementary and replaced veteran Terry MacElligott. She also pointed to the AVID program as one investment the district has made to improving middle school performance. It also limited the first day of school this year to sixth grade students in middle school and ninth grade students at the high school to help improve those transitions.

LeBlanc-Esparza continued on to say that the district is researching best practices at successful middle schools and will look all available options, including the sixth- through eighth-grade format. Whether that means making fifth grade more like middle school or sixth grade more like elementary is also part of the ongoing conversation.

"We're not hiding from this data" Foster said. "We're looking into what we're doing to serve these students and if we need to make a big change and be bold, that's what we're going to do."

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