WEEKLY REPORT #10
Why is RTMSD Math Proficiency so poor?
In a nutshell:
PSSA standardized assessment testing of RTMSD pupils grades 3 through 8 reports that many pupils' proficiency in Mathematics is below grade level.
For example, the results of the 2022 PSSA tests for Grade 8 report that 16% are Advanced, 32% are Proficient, and about 52% have "Basic" or "Below Basic" proficiency.
This is not a new phenomenon. From first available PSSA reports, RTMSD pupils have performed surprisingly poorly in standardized Math testing.
Test results have worsened for all grades since 2015.
As RTMSD pupils progress from 3rd through 8th grades, increasingly larger proportions of the grades' pupils become below grade level.
We don't know the proficiency of RTMSD senior high students -- the Keystone Exams are the PA standard for assessing 11th grade proficiency, but too few RTMSD juniors have been taking the test recently to provide an insight to the Math proficiency of the entire student body, and, as a class, how it compares to other schools' proficiency, or to previous RTMSD classes.
Who does the RTMSD School Board represent?
The PSSA Performance Levels
The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) categorizes results of its testing as Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic. Basic performance is defined as "marginal academic performance, and work at this level demonstrates a partial command...(of) the Pennsylvania standards". That is, Proficient is what is sometimes referred to as "on grade level" and Basic and Below Basic performance in the test is below grade level.
RTMSD PSSA Results
The PSSA results data in the image below is filtered for only Springton Lake Middle School's grades, and only for the Math test results for all of the years which are published on the PA Department of Education's website.
(Note: the PSSA results extract contains the test results for all of the schools in Pennsylvania.)
As one examines the sum of Basic and Below Basic scorers in the data for grades 6, 7, and 8, a trend is apparent for each of the grades from their 2015 proportion of pupils to 2022.
With spikes for some years, the proportion of below grade level pupils increases for all grades between 2015 and 2022.
The increase is steepest for grade 7 (from 38% to 49%). Eighth grade's proportion is highest, and 6th grade's proportion is lowest. After 2015, the 8th grade never achieves even 50% of pupils being Proficient.
However, none of the grades' Math results approach the proportion of Proficient performance which all grades achieve for English Language Arts, which is almost always better than 80%.
Possible Causes of Low Proficiency
The most common reason given for low standardized test scores, the COVID-19 pandemic and school lockdowns, is not the reason -- Math proficiency was poor before COVID-19 became a new word in 2020. The trendlines are also clear from 2015 through 2022 -- this decline was apparent before 2020 and has continued at about the same rate (see the image above).
37% to 44% for 6th grade
38% to 49% for 7th grade
49% to 52% for 8th grade
As with every assessment test, the reasons for low proficiency could one or more of several possibilities:
The Pupils - .do not have the capability to master the material, have physical, familial, social obstacles to mastering the material.
Curriculum - the pupils were not taught the material which was tested
Teaching method - the method(s) of instruction which have been used restrict some students from becoming proficient: In-classroom vs. online vs ZOOM meetings; traditional vs. new/experimental teaching approaches (ex., "Singapore math"), "educational equity" measures, etc.
Instruction - the curriculum plans for the material to be taught, but it was not
Let's consider the Pupils first.
They are able to master English Language Arts -- 80% of all grades consistently test as Proficient in reading, writing, and related practices. Math instruction stands out as being distinctly unsuccessful.
RTMSD's community is among the most prosperous in Pennsylvania and its environment is as safe and welcoming as other local school districts which do succeed in PSSA math proficiency.
The community's education level and prosperity has not changed significantly over the past 10-12 years.
Our kids are smart and have the caregiver interest and involvement and the resources to be successful. They are not the problem.
Curriculum content - what to teach
Curriculum involves topics, texts, and teacher guidance. As this report must be brief (and RTMSD has not posted its course texts and teacher guidance), we will restrict our scope to Topics as defined by the state's minimum curriculum standards. Also, the state's mandated assessment tests are only available metric to compare RTMSD's teaching effectiveness against PA's standard and to other school districts' assessment results.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) developed a very comprehensive, detailed statement of the minimum standard of content which will be assessed in its PSSA standardized testing. See here for its Assessment Anchors of content and here for examples (scoring samplers) of test questions and the criteria which will be used to give (full or partial) credit to test answers. For grades 6, 7, 8, the PSSA standard includes testing for arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and probability/statistics for each of these grades, at increasing levels of complexity.
RTMSD's website for Curriculum content for each grade and subject is available publicly but offers only short, high-level descriptions. This makes it difficult to determine of how much of the state-mandated minimum curriculum standards RTMSD plans to teach.
RTMSD offers courses dedicated to Geometry and Statistics in senior high, but its curriculum description for math at least mentions topics of surface area and volume, bivariate pairs and scatter diagrams, etc. But is enough geometry and statistics taught to middle school pupils, early enough, to equip them to succeed in their PSSA exam?
If too little of these subjects are taught to pupils by the time PSSA tests for them, it would explain why RTMSD's PSSA Math scores are below Proficient for about half of the middle school pupils.
Teaching Method - how to teach
RTMSD's Curriculum and Instruction webpage does not discuss Instruction Practices, other than to announce a second Instruction Practice which it provides - "RTMCyber Academy Online Learning Option", a service purchased through edmentum. It also notes in its curriculum guide options to take courses outside of the school district.
RTMSD has adopted a philosophy for the District's culture and teaching environment named "Educational Equity" which is driven by its Inclusivity and Belonging department. RTMSD does not state in its webpage how Educational Equity is applied to Instruction, but insight to its application is apparent from RTMSD's approach to implementing its new Eureka Math Squared program presentation and diversity in class assignments (see Math Curriculum FAQs' descriptions of "...different levels of challenge within one topic...enable all students to be...within the same Math classroom" and "...students who require acceleration...will receive additional math practice".
See slide 11 in this presentation on course pacing and slide 25 on a revised process, "bar modeling", for arithmetic operations.)
The Teaching Method can make a big difference in the effectiveness of instruction. Eureka Math Squared is a new teaching method at RTMSD, but numerous parents have reported frustration in their children to the "illogical" Math arithmetic operations process used prior to Eureka Match Squared's implementation. Was it a cause for the poor Math proficiency in RTMSD since 2015?
Instruction - executing
There are many elements and methods for Instruction. Again, we must be brief here.
All agree that teachers are of paramount importance to effective teaching. Recruiting and vetting, training, and coaching teachers are ways that a school district can create the teaching culture it strives for, and improve its existing faculty's performance.
The school board and district determine the Instruction Practice(s) which it will use -- for example, "whole-class, teacher-led, desks-in-rows, teaching bell-to-bell" is the traditional practice. It should then recruit, vet, and hire teachers who have training or experience with the selected Instruction Practice.
Teachers may not choose the curriculum or the teaching method that they prefer to use.
They are responsible to complete the curriculum's content within the period allowed for each course. Not completing courses' prescribed topics is a great disservice to the pupils, but parents have reported precisely this -- "only completed 3 of 5 math units in my son's grade this year".
The special impact a teacher brings to instruction is to how they relate to and engage their students -- their personal warmth, humor, and insight into the children and difficulties they might have with the lesson; their enthusiasm about the content; providing interesting and illustrative examples for the concepts that they teach.
There are ways to assess the effectiveness of a teacher - objective results of standardized tests, subjective responses from pupils and parents, from classroom observation and peer reviews.
"Personal Development" activities should reinforce and direct the in-class instruction.
And their in-class execution of the curriculum should be observed and coached.
There is no information published on RTMSD's website regarding how teaching is assessed and coached, lesson plans reviewed, and curricular progress monitored currently.
There are no quantitative measures available to assess the effectiveness of the Cyber Academy, Eureka Math Squared, assigning students of varying capability to classes, curriculum completion, or teachers.
We have only the bottom-line: the PSSA standardized assessments to track the impact of these innovations on the learning achievement of RTMSD pupils.
So, how do we attack the long-term Academic Proficiency deficit in Math which is apparent from years of poor PSSA results across several grades?
The MAKE THE RIGHT THINGS HAPPEN candidates for School Director propose an independent Curriculum Audit to ensure all mandated and essential content is explicitly declared in RTMSD's curriculum policies, supported with appropriate resources and methods, and enacted in lesson plans for every class.
The Board should part in discussion of curricula and methods with peer schools which have been successful in improving their Academic Proficiency --
Garnet Valley improved from being ranked 58th in PA to 12th in 6 years;
Radnor (top 20) and Wallingford-Swarthmore (top 40) maintained their excellent rankings through the same turbulent period which dropped RTMSD from 66th to 100th.
Only that which is monitored and measured succeeds. Instruction should be audited continuously with
focus on accomplishing lesson plan benchmarks
frequent assessments and remediation
provisions for helping pupils who are struggling and
opening paths for those who are hungry for more
regular reports to the Administration and School Board on issues and quantifiable progress
The RTMSD community has all of the elements required to be a leader in Academic Proficiency in the area and the state. We only need to establish where improvements are needed, identify impediments which hinder achievement, and drive and monitor actions to make the improvements common practice.