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Improving student achievement through choice

When Exeter USD leaders found that their students’ reading and math scores weren’t improving as much as they’d hoped, they chose to double down on empowering teachers and students

Exeter (CA) Unified School District is a small, rural district with approximately 2,800 students, 61 percent of whom are Hispanic and 62 percent of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Approximately one in seven of our students are English language learners. When we looked at our reading and math scores a few years back, we found that we weren’t seeing the growth we were hoping to see. With a renewed focus on the basics of literacy and math, a technology infusion, and a dedication to dialogue over rote memorization, here’s how we helped our students find the success and achievement they deserve.

Starting with the standards
Exeter is a standards-driven district, so when we decided to focus on literacy, we knew we weren’t going to adopt a publisher’s curriculum. Instead, we designed our own units of study and pulled in supplemental materials to align to our state’s standards. We brought in close-reading strategies, started an academic coaching program for teachers, and launched reading interventions and guided reading groups.

1:1 devices, renovated classrooms
We hired an outside consultant to help staff, administration, and some parents develop a technology-implementation plan for our initiative, which started with ramping up the infrastructure with fiber for improved bandwidth and wi-fi. Then we asked teachers to pilot various devices.

We had a three-year technology-implementation plan but, because of our staff’s enthusiasm, that plan shortened to just over two years. In that time, we became a 1:1 device district. Today we have a range of devices in our classrooms, from tablets in some of the primary grades to laptops in our science classrooms (where more powerful devices are necessary).

We’ve also renovated more than half of our classrooms with new personalized and flexible seating and completely transformed 12 classrooms in our middle school. The traditional desks and tables in rows are gone and we have new furniture, such as stand-up, adjustable-height desks, exercise balls for students to sit on, floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, and bean bags. The refurbished classrooms free our students to get comfortable and to transition from individual work environments to group settings quickly to better facilitate collaborative learning.

We have audio systems in the ceiling so students don’t depend on the sound from a TV that might be 25 feet away from them. Those TVs—three in each room—are all wired together so that teachers and students can show one example on all three or operate each one individually for small-group work.

A focus on student choice
Providing students with choices—such as which devices to use, how to present their information, and how to demonstrate to their teachers what they’ve learned—allows them to become the kind of young adult we want them to be as they leave Exeter Union High School. We want them to learn that there is more than one way to solve a problem or to approach an issue, whether that’s in the workplace, in their personal lives, or in their education.

One tool that’s been a key component of increasing student choice is myON®, by Renaissance®. Students and teachers are able to use this literacy ecosystem to choose fiction and nonfiction reading material by subject, grade level, and Lexile measures. As a result of all this focus on student choice, we’ve seen an increase of about 57 percent of student time recorded reading purely for fun—and we all know that when students are active participants in their learning, their engagement level and achievement improve.

Our teachers track all kinds of metrics, such as how many pages and the amount of time students are reading; they use that information to further support each student. Teachers have 24-hour access to progress-monitoring data so they can provide feedback, correction, and assistance immediately rather than waiting until the end of a quarter to do a large assessment; by then we may have missed the boat with some students.

A conversational approach to math
To monitor progress and respond quickly, we’re using Renaissance Accelerated Math® as the centerpiece of our new approach to math. This is our third year participating in a consortium of schools here in Tulare County to focus on fifth-grade math instruction, and we’re talking about math differently as a result. It’s no longer a series of problems that students take step by step by step. Our new approach to math instruction puts the emphasis on understanding reasoning and the ability to use math vocabulary to defend their answer and share their reasoning.

We’ve focused on shifting our instructional strategy, using tools like manipulatives to incorporate a hands-on approach to learning mathematics. Instead of rote memorization, we’re encouraging students to find multiple ways to get to an answer and then discuss how they got there.

We have definitely seen a difference in math instruction and achievement in our classrooms. Students are not at their desks, working out mathematics problems; instead they are having conversations about the logic and the sequence behind solving those problems. With this approach, we saw a 4.57 percent increase in California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress scores for math, compared with 2.14 percent for our county and 1.29 percent across the state. Three of the seven grade levels assessed improved by 10 percent or more.

Positive change
Sometimes we have to make drastic changes in how we do things, but that’s about more than just adding the latest and greatest fads. Just as we do in differentiating instruction, we need to evaluate what we’re doing, prioritize our interventions, and then evaluate whether they’re working or not. Then we can stop doing the things that aren’t working and double down on those that are making a real difference for students.

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