School Improvement: Don't wait until third grade

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Elliot Regenstein and Maia Connors

Fordham’s recent report, Leveraging ESSA to Support Quality-School Growth, lays out some school improvement strategies that states should strongly consider. But in analyzing how to strengthen school improvement, there are really two separate questions to ponder. First, are states correctly diagnosing why a school isn’t meeting its students’ needs? And second, if they are, are they then responding with the correct solutions?

To date, elementary-school improvement has suffered from a massive problem of misdiagnosis. Fortunately, ESSA scraps school-improvement grants and their narrowly prescribed requirements for a 7 percent set-aside of states Title I money, giving states much more freedom to better figure out what lies at the core of a school’s poor performance—and which interventions will actually lead to durable school improvement.

To better understand the problem, let’s look at the data from two high-poverty schools. Figure 1 compares the percentage of students in each school who meet state standards on the state’s required assessments:

Figure 1. Percentage of students exceeding state standards in two schools, by grade and subject

Identical, right? Not so fast. At School A, a kindergarten readiness assessment indicated that 15 percent of kids entered kindergarten ready to succeed, but at School B that figure was 50 percent.  If the kindergarten assessment and the later assessments are all aligned to a set of well-articulated standards, then students in School A are showing significant growth in the period between kindergarten and third grade—and the students in School B are heading in the wrong direction during that same time period.  That’s an important piece of information that is often left out of the current metrics of accountability and school improvement, even though it is universally acknowledged that K–2 is a critical period for child development and learning.

There are plenty of age-appropriate assessments available for children in the early elementary grades, kindergarten, and even younger. Although those assessments aren’t suitable for statewide accountability purposes, they can be extremely helpful for diagnosing what’s going on at a particular school. Is the issue that kids are coming into kindergarten far behind? Or are kids losing ground between kindergarten and third grade? Maybe both? In many low-performing schools, the achievement gap has opened long before third grade; indeed, research shows that many children are already behind by the time they enter preschool.  

The amount of growth children show (or don't show) in those years is a data point that should inform school improvement strategies. So as states develop ESSA-aligned requirements and rubrics for school improvement, they would be wise to consider how these tools might lead to a better understanding of what’s going on in school before the tested grades. For years, the combination of federal and state law has created conditions in which school improvement efforts were based almost exclusively on accountability test scores that started in third grade. This has meant that analyzing and focusing on the early years is simply not a part of most school improvement efforts. In other words, many schools keep repairing the roof while the foundation sinks deeper into quicksand. With new ESSA provisions, states now have an opportunity to change those conditions. In awarding grants, the statute requires states to provide grants of no more than four years, prioritizing districts that are committed to improving student achievement and student outcomes. To encourage investment in earlier years, states will need to define “student achievement and student outcomes” as something other than just proficiency on accountability-focused assessments in third grade and up.

If states do a better job of instigating data collection about the years prior to third grade, then school-specific data can be used to inform the design and implementation of improvement strategies in that school. For example, where kindergarten readiness is low, schools might work with providers in their community to strengthen the quality of services for pre-kindergarten children; in some instances, schools may want to provide additional services themselves. Similarly, where K–2 performance is weak, strategies focused on improving instruction in those years should be deployed. As Fordham’s report explains, states may want to consider a variety of different approaches to their school improvement work—and all of them can take account of the importance of identifying and addressing achievement gaps prior to third grade.

The politics of this approach should be favorable in many states. For education reformers, this is an opportunity to improve the use of data in school improvement processes. For school management groups and unions, this approach could confirm that a school’s low performance wasn’t due to its personnel—it was due to the challenges of working with kids who start kindergarten desperately far behind. And early learning advocates can see an opportunity to strengthen the connection between the early learning and K–12 systems.

The importance of third grade reading is well established. But, to date, school improvement efforts have focused almost exclusively on playing catch-up after third grade. That’s backwards. In the new era of school improvement ushered in by ESSA, states have the freedom to let schools figure out how to attack the problem of low achievement where and when they can make the most difference. Smart states will take advantage of the opportunity.

Elliot Regenstein is the Senior Vice President, Advocacy and Policy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, where Maia Connors is a Senior Research Associate.