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Ogden schools see dramatic spike in student proficiency scores

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 5:18 p.m. MDT

Kindergartners Leland Vanvelzer, Helena Burgos, Adriana Lazaro and Merci Snow work on reading with trained paraprofessional Patricia Sperry at Dee Elementary School in Ogden on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

OGDEN — Last year, Dee Elementary School in Ogden had the worst student proficiency scores in Utah.

In all, five Ogden School District elementary schools claimed spots in the bottom 10 worst performing schools in the state. 

Not any more.

In just one year, the percentage of students proficient in language arts – based on the state's Criterion-Referenced Tests, or CRTs – has increased by double-digits in Ogden's worst-performing schools. Scores in math and science still lag, but showed modest gains as student literacy in the district improved. 

The state's school-specific CRT reports will not be finalized until November, but the jump in language proficiency should knock at least four Ogden schools out of the "bottom 10" designation they've held for years.

"What happens in the classroom was previously unacceptable," said Ogden Superintendent Brad Smith. "What changed was a cold hard look at what instruction meant in those buildings and teachers having the basic mental toughness, the basic humility, to say 'whatever we were doing before has not worked'."

Smith said his first reaction to seeing the scores was "WOW!" – which he specified should be spelled in all-caps with an exclamation point – but added that he, along with administrators and teachers, is not satisfied.

"No one who's working hard in my district is," he said. "I've got people who are doing the work. Right now, today they are doing the work and they're engaged. They're working hard and most importantly they're getting results."

Smith's appointment to superintendent last year was followed by sweeping administrative changes that garnered controversy as nearly all of the district's school principals were uprooted and re-shuffled to new assignments.

He said the changes were individually calculated to match the best administrator with the school where they could affect the greatest change. He also said that, if necessary, more changes could be on the way.

"Does it mean that I intend for people to live with a gun to their head? No," he said. "It does mean that I wake up every day saying 'three out of four of my kids are not proficient in math for this economy and if I can't produce kids that are at least proficient in algebra I'm condemning them to a lifetime or more-likely-than-not sub-par life."

Beyond leadership changes, a visible difference in the Ogden School District is a heavy reliance on assessment data to tailor instruction to individual students. At the district offices, charts and graphs representing each school in the district line the hallway outside of the office of Rich Nye, district assessment coordinator. Similar "data walls" can be found at individuals schools, breaking down proficiency rates by grade and class and showing trends across several years, in an effort to increase buy-in by parents and students.

"We're encouraging the schools at their level, in their halls, to have different data walls, charts, graphs, things of that nature to help students also see what's occurring," Nye said.

Dee and Odyssey Elementary Schools saw the most dramatic increases in language arts scores. At Dee, formerly the state's worst performing school, 74 percent of students tested proficient in language arts last spring, compared with 42 percent the year before. At Odyssey, another "Bottom 10" school in 2011, the percentage of students proficient in language arts increased from 47 to 73.

At both schools, every student qualifies for free or reduced lunch and roughly half the student body speaks English as a second language. Both schools also received a new principal in 2010, plucked from the administration at Ogden High School.

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