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Opinion: Green Dot’s experience shows LAUSD was right to release student growth data because it’s a more meaningful measure of student success

Michael Garner | November 18, 2019

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A student at Ánimo Florence-Firestone Charter Middle School in Los Angeles explains his math solution to his teacher. (Courtesy Green Dot Public Schools)

In a Nov. 4 commentary on LA School Report, Jeimee Estrada, the executive director of Educators for Excellence, presents a rational and compelling set of reasons why growth data should be the basis for measuring schools and students.

Especially important is her focus on how the use of growth data better serves students on the wrong end of the opportunity gap — those with greater needs, including English learners, foster youth, children from low-income households, students dealing with homelessness and students with disabilities.

At Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school network that serves 11,000 students in 26 schools in three states, 20 in California alone, these are our students. Over the past two decades, we have served, and we have graduated, tens of thousands of young people who come from communities that have been perpetually overlooked and underserved. We have sent students to the top universities in the country. We have prepared the young people walking onto our campuses for the complex, evolving careers unfolding in the 21st century. Our teachers, perhaps most importantly, have inspired these students over and over.

We’ve done all this, in part, by relying on and emphasizing growth data. Or, to put it more starkly: We have done so by tracking how each and every one of our students is doing on statewide assessments in comparison to their own past successes and performance. Assessments that measure how one year’s students are doing compared to past students at the same age and grade level fail these students, as Estrada makes clear.

We are pleased that the LAUSD Board of Education earlier this month approved the release of school-specific data that includes student growth among its measures — parents, students and the community will benefit from this improved way of judging schools. We hope the state will follow by including growth data in the California School Dashboard; based on our experience at Green Dot, doing so would far more accurately, effectively and helpfully measure the progress being made by students, teachers and schools.

The broadest of these lessons is that growth data, which incorporate the state’s standard accountability metrics, far more accurately reflects how individual students are performing in the classroom and how they are improving — or the opposite, which is as important to identify — as they progress through school. We have seen this again and again, year after year. By adopting the CORE Academic Growth Model — used by the CORE districts of Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Ana — Green Dot has been able to avoid misleading conclusions of how students and schools are doing.

Such misleading conclusions can consistently, and perpetually, dampen and diminish students’ self-confidence and engagement with their own education. With growth data, students and their families can be shown how much improvement is happening, even how the pace of learning is accelerating. Growth data enables us to tell a student: “You’re doing better, especially here and here and here.” The alternative is to tell a student how they are doing compared to some anonymous student from a year ago. That first student is going to be inspired by his or her own success, and that self-confidence can build on itself and be the foundation for even more learning.

This culture of growth and self-confidence also extends to teachers, administrators and other school staff. Knowing that students are improving, both within a single school year as well as over the course of several grades, enables teachers and school leaders to refine practices that are working and adjust those that are not. Understanding growth data ensures professional development opportunities are tailored where teachers need the most assistance. A culture of growth engenders a campus culture that celebrates the successes of students, teachers and schools.

Conversely, relying on the current measures, which pinpoint students’ test results at one given moment and do not take into account whether a student had fallen behind but is catching up quickly, effectively penalizes schools that take on our state’s most impacted students. All these results show is that a school is lagging behind others — and its students, teachers and administrators, as well. That leads all too quickly to a culture of defeat. Highlighting that students, with the help of teachers and other school staff and through their own dedication and commitment, are catching up and learning more and faster than their peers — that does just the opposite. That is the starting point for a culture of success.

A last lesson, and another that is especially critical for students from underserved communities, is that growth data can help schools identify which supportive services and whole-child wellness programs are making meaningful differences in students’ lives. This is only possible when looking at the changes in student performance and not just broader indications of proficiency. Academic afterschool programs might be the most effective intervention to improve student outcomes at one school, or even for certain students at a school. For another school or other students, more athletic opportunities might boost their engagement with their school and improve their learning. Perhaps a health clinic fills a prominent need. Along with serving students best, this knowledge can help school leaders make the wisest investment decisions — saving and maximizing public dollars.

Using growth data has greatly improved Green Dot’s ability to see how individual students are doing and provide them targeted and tailored assistance. It has helped us better, and more fairly, evaluate our teachers and craft professional development opportunities that build on their strengths and address areas where they are weaker. It has given us the ability to celebrate the impressive work done by schools such as Animo Ellen Ochoa, Animo Legacy and Animo College Prep, where students are learning at rates far faster than their peers and are catching up after falling behind.

Without growth data, I’m sure all of this would still be possible, but it would be much, much harder to accomplish. And when there are already so many challenges facing our schools, why add more hurdles to the fight? Why enable a culture of defeat when we can be celebrating the cultures of success that exist throughout Los Angeles?

Michael Garner has worked in public education reform since 2006, in roles ranging from math teacher to central office support. He is currently the director of data science & analytics at Green Dot Public schools. 

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