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Forget grade levels: Schools try something new

Schools in Kansas City, Mo., will begin to group students by ability as opposed to age this fall.
Schools in Kansas City, Mo., will begin to group students by ability as opposed to age this fall.

As Kansas City, Mo., students return to their age-assigned classrooms this fall, they will begin to take assessments in math and reading—tests that will determine their mastery of specific skill sets and, ultimately, where they will be placed.

Instead of simply moving kids from one grade to the next as they get older, Kansas City schools will begin grouping students by ability. Once they master a subject, they’ll move up a level. This practice has been around for decades, but was generally used on a smaller scale—in individual grades, subjects, or schools. Kansas City is believed to be the largest U.S. school system to try grouping by ability.

It’s the latest effort to transform the struggling Kansas City school system. Starting this fall, officials will begin introducing 17,000 students to the new system to turn around lagging schools and increase abysmal tests scores.

“The current system of public education in this country is not working,” said Kansas City Schools Superintendent John Covington. “It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair, rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.”

During the first two weeks of school, pre-K to sixth grade students in five schools will take reading and math assessments to determine their mastery level. The students then will be leveled and moved into groups according to their abilities, said Mary Esselman, assistant superintendent of professional development, assessment, and accountability.

“We’ll … incorporate technology through common assessments and alignment to state standards—and national and international standards as well,” Esselman said. “We’re pretty excited about it. We spent the bulk of the summer leveling curriculum and identifying learning targets.”

Esselman said the students will use Pearson’s Developmental Reading Assessment 2 (DRA2) to test their reading abilities.

“We adopted a new reading program because we were looking for a robust reading assessment that isolated individual skills … such as fluency or comprehension,” she said. “DRA2 gave us a level that we didn’t have already in the assessment we previously used.”

The district will select a math assessment program in the next week, Esselman said. The leveling process with expand to other subjects next year and eventually will be implemented all the way through 12th grade.

How the reform works

Students, often of varying ages, will work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still will instruct students as a group if needed, but often students will be working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a class learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems, because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

But backers acknowledge that implementation is tricky, and the change is so drastic it can take time to explain to parents, teachers, and students. If the community isn’t sold on the effort, it will bomb, said Richard DeLorenzo, co-founder of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, which coaches schools on implementing the reform.

Kansas City officials hope the new system will help the district, which has been beset with failure. A $2 billion desegregation case failed to boost test scores or stem the exodus of students to the suburbs and private and charter schools. The district has lost half its students and will close about 40 percent of its schools by the fall to avoid bankruptcy.

Covington said he wants to start the system in five elementary schools in hopes of spreading it through the upper grades once the bugs are worked out.

“This system precludes us from labeling children failures,” Covington said. “It’s not that you’ve failed, it’s just that at this point you haven’t mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level.”

As they plan for the change, Kansas City teachers and administrators have visited and sought advice from a Denver-area school district that uses the reform.

A replicable system

Adams County School District 50, in Denver, had about 10,000 students this past school year and saw its elementary and middle students make the shift. The reform will be phased into the high schools starting in the fall.

Count 11-year-old Alex Rodriguez as a convert to the new approach. He said he used to get bored after plowing through his assignments. He had to bring books from home or the library if he wanted a challenge, because the ones at his old school were one or two grade levels too easy.

“I liked school,” he said. “But it was hard sitting there and doing nothing.”

His parents transferred the high achiever and his three younger siblings to the Denver-area district after learning it was trying something new. His father, Richard Rodriguez, has been thrilled with the turnaround.

“I wish school was like this when I was growing up,” he said.

There also is growing interest in Maine, where six districts, with a combined 11,248 students, are transitioning to the reform, starting with staff training and community meetings and gradually changing what happens in classrooms.

“It is incredible what is happening in the classrooms in Maine that are trying it,” said Diana Doiron, who is overseeing the effort for the state’s education department.

Education officials in Kansas City, Maine, and elsewhere said part of the allure is the success other districts have after making the switch.

Marzano Research Laboratory, an educational research and professional development firm, evaluated 2009 state test data for more than 3,500 students from 15 school districts in Alaska, Colorado, and Florida. Researchers found that students who learned through the different approach were 2.5 times more likely to score at a level that shows they have a good grasp of the material on exams for reading, writing, and mathematics.

Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, recalled that before the switch there were students who had been on honor roll throughout high school and then failed a state test for graduation.

Now, he said, if students are on pace to pass a class like Algebra I, the likelihood of them passing the state exam covering that material is more than 90 percent. He said he is proud of that accomplishment and said teachers love it.

“The most die-hard advocates for our system are our teachers because—especially the ones who were back with us before the change—they saw where things were then,” he said. “They see where things are now, and they don’t want to go back.”


Kansas City School District

Pearson’s DRA2

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