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Boosting Test Scores: "Principal" Strategies That Work

Raising test scores is a goal at the top of all principals' lists. It's a task that requires focus and a multi-pronged approach. In this article, Ed World's "Principal Files" team shares strategies that have helped them boost sagging scores -- strategies that could work for you too.

Did your students' test scores rise last year? If you're like many of our Principal Files team members, you've witnessed an increase in scores over the past several years. Seldom is it by chance that those scores have risen; it's the result of a concerted effort by an entire staff -- an effort that is very likely to include extensive data analysis, focused teacher training, frequent monitoring of student progress, practice testing throughout the year, student and staff incentives, and other strategies.

"Our scores have gone up in each of the last five years," said principal Michael Miller of Saturn Elementary School in Cocoa, Florida. "In our state, schools are graded from F to A, and we have been in the A category for the past three years."

That's a commendable accomplishment given the school's diverse population and a mobility rate as high as 45 percent.

Miller is quick to point out that the increase in scores is the result of a district-wide focus. "I am responsible to my area superintendent to accomplish a 'principal's checklist' of goals. One of those responsibilities is to meet, along with my assistant principal, with each of my Level 1's [students scoring at the lower levels on the state tests] and their parents to discuss test scores and the importance of raising those scores. We talk about the school's responsibility for raising the students' test scores and how the parents can support that effort.

"That personal attention is a very good idea because, many times, students and parents don't understand how close they are to the next level until we point it out."

The district's extra attention to test results has paid off substantially. Today, all but two of the district's nearly 100 schools are classified as A or B by the state, he said.


Testing Tips

When searching for ways to boost student achievement, teachers at Sacred Heart/St. Isadore Regional Grammar School in Vineland, New Jersey, uncovered some interesting research findings. Among the separate research studies they found were those that documented improved test scores when students
--- ate plenty of sweets the week before testing,
--- remained well hydrated during testing, and
--- chewed gum during testing.
"A few teachers employed all three findings, but most drew the line at chewing gum," said principal Patrice DeMartino.

In addition, based on research about the alertness levels of students, "we set up our testing schedule so the younger students test in the early morning while our upper and middle grades' students tested later in the morning," DeMartino added.

"All of the teachers on our staff have been fully trained in how to look at their class's test scores," Miller told Education World. "They are able to identify their students' specific strengths and weaknesses. The teachers know where they need to concentrate their attention.

"As they focus on analyzing their class's scores, I do the same thing for the school as a whole. I look at each class, and then at the entire school, to check for patterns. I concentrate my attention on developing new strategies and methods -- and arranging training and obtaining materials -- needed to improve those specific areas."

Sue Astley also sets aside time for teachers in her school to analyze their students' test results. The goal of that exercise is twofold: to identify areas of the curriculum that need to be improved and to identify the strong and weak students in each class.

"We are trying to move away from the smile-and-file mode of testing -- the mode in which we get back test results, smile as we share the results with parents, then file away the results and never look at them again," said Astley, assistant headmaster and elementary principal at St. Martin's Episcopal School, a private Pre-K to 8 school in Atlanta, Georgia.

"We are also trying to get away from the perception that we're evaluating teachers based on student scores. As we all know, there are many variables in the testing equation. While we want scores to improve from year to year, we're more interested in what they tell us about our curriculum and teaching."

At St. Martin's, the data analysis effort is carried out completely in-house with the assistance of one classroom teacher who carries a lighter teaching load and spends the balance of her time working with and supporting teachers as they gather data from test scores. That "testing teacher" has created a special work sheet that helps teachers analyze their data, said Astley.


At Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida, principal Les Potter has led his school's focus on building literacy and test scores. "A state literacy grant has enabled us to present numerous in-services focused on reading in the content areas," said Potter. "Additionally, we identified our lowest readers and we provide them with intensive reading classes. We provide after-school tutoring, food, and transportation for students. And we held our first literacy fair.

"Those efforts are fully supported by our school's advisory committee of parents and teachers and our school PTSA," added Potter. "Our parents have dedicated time and money to help with our reading initiatives."


Secrets to Success

Principal Marguerite McNeely helped steer test results on an upward slope at Alexandria Magnet Middle School in Alexandria, Louisiana. "Test scores went up as a result of some commonsense things we did," McNeely told Education World.

--- Class size. Grant money was used to hire 2 extra teachers to target students who had weak scores.
--- After-school tutoring. Another grant provided the money.
--- After-school team meetings. Teachers across the curriculum were paid a stipend to participate in the additional meetings.
--- Curriculum connections. The entire school worked to enhance math and language arts skills.
--- Rewards and incentives. Student and teacher accomplishments are regularly recognized. Students receive pins and a special breakfast for good grades; incentives for teachers include everything from plaques to notes posted on classroom doors and candy bars in mailboxes.

"I would say the greatest catalyst is our constant effort to remind and convince staff and the student body that we can do this!" said McNeely. "The staff and students feel a sense of accomplishment now, and next year should be even better."

In Lancaster, Ohio, principal Paul Young has used a state access grant to bring aboard two expert consultants who work in classrooms with teachers to identify and assist "bubble" students. "'Bubble' is the term we use for kids who appear to score right at the minimum level," explained Young, who is principal at West Elementary School. "With one or two more correctly bubbled answers, those students would achieve a proficient score."

Bringing aboard the consultants has proved successful. "Having a fresh set of eyes and ideas -- and having an outsider reiterate the things the principal, supervisors, and master teachers have been saying -- is valuable," said Young.

"Our regular staff meetings typically have agenda items related to test scores, and our Intervention Assistance Team (IAT) meets weekly," added Young. "That team shares the responsibility for success of nearly 20 percent of our student population. They develop intervention plans to meet the academic, behavioral, emotional, and social needs of students -- particularly those students at risk of failure in the regular classroom and on high-stakes tests."

Mary Smith doubles as principal and superintendent of the K-8 Whitebead School in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. There, a population in flux -- in ten years, the Hispanic population that has grown from 4 percent of the district's students to 25 percent -- has created special challenges. "An intervention plan developed by staff and parents places money and emphasis on kindergarten and first grade intervention in an attempt to be proactive rather than reactive in our approach," said Smith. "All K and first grade students identified receive 30 minutes a day of one-to-one intervention focused on readiness."

The program doesn't end there. Identified second through fifth graders receive 45 minutes of small-group language arts instruction five times a week. Non-English-speaking "newcomers" get a double dose of small-group language arts instruction.


"School improvement is an evolving process that takes ongoing monitoring and constant input," said Smith, who meets weekly with the five teams that comprise her staff. "A special computer-based program enables me to pull up records of any student or classroom to monitor their progress."

At St. Martin's Episcopal, once the analysis is complete, principal Sue Astley and the school's testing teacher meet monthly with staff members to talk about strategies for improving instruction for the whole class and for individual students.

Similarly, Michael Miller meets with Saturn Elementary's teachers on a regular basis to chart progress of those students whose test results are below the level of acceptance. "Our teachers know they need to come up with ways to increase the scores of the bottom 25 percent of students," explained Miller. "Teachers conference with me on a regular basis about those students, all of whom are on academic improvement plans that offer specific strategies for improvement."

In addition, parents are intimately involved in their children's improvement plans. "Teachers are required to meet with students' parents, and parents are required to sign the plans," added Miller.

At Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida, principal Larry Davis meets monthly with representatives of each grade level. "Those meetings are designed so we can talk about individual students and how to assist them with learning," explained Davis. "In addition, teachers of each grade level turn in monthly minutes that reflect their team discussions of student data."


At Cedar Creek School in Ruston, Louisiana, curriculum coordinator Marilyn Koepke has spearheaded a comprehensive staff development effort in the area of writing across the curriculum. A consultant introduced a series of instructional strategies, and teachers implemented those strategies between sessions. "At each subsequent in-service, teachers were expected to share student work in small groups and discuss their experiences with implementation," explained Koepke.

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Group discussions of students' work took place in K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 teams. The groups discussed and shared samples of work related to strategies. They shared individual student success stories; they also shared their frustrations and skepticism about the value of some strategies.

"Those discussions were an opportunity for teachers to learn from one another, to ask questions, and, generally speaking, to contribute to a professional dialogue," observed Koepke. "The main benefit for our teachers, I believe, is that it has made them eager to dialog among themselves and learn from each other -- even without a consultant present. Doing that has helped to begin to turn us into what Richard DuFour calls a 'professional learning community'."

And as the conversation continues, the test scores creep up. In the past three years, average ACT scores at Cedar Creek have increased more than 2 percentage points. The average Stanford 9 score increased from 80.6 percent to 81.8.


Just as data analysis and progress monitoring are ongoing ventures, so too is practice testing in many schools. "We purchased practice materials for improving test scores for reading, math, and language arts," Sacred Heart's Patrice DeMartino told Education World. "Teachers are asked to make use of those materials about once a week. We also set up an after-school program where students and a teacher work with the materials.

"We all agree having the practice-testing materials helps put students more at ease with testing," added DeMartino.

The same is true at Doctors Inlet Elementary. Practice tests are used there with ESE (exceptional/below level) students each month, said principal Larry Davis.

At Calgary Academy in Calgary, Alberta (Canada), copies of previous exams are available for teachers to use with students. While teachers there make good use of those tests, "we focus more on the process skills behind the tests than on the tests themselves," said principal Kim McLean. For example, to improve reading comprehension teachers of all subjects read stories throughout the year and ask questions based on the levels of thinking in Bloom's taxonomy.

"If students learn how to answer questions and to think on different levels, then it doesn't matter what is on the test," added McLean. "Those skills are transferable to all testing situations."


Not too many years ago, when Jim DeGenova was an elementary-level principal, he had a teacher transfer into his building. That teacher had taught middle school for most of his career, but he was taking on a fourth-grade class in DeGenova's building. "A proficiency test was to be given to all fourth graders that year, and the new teacher's class was expected to be the worst of the seven fourth grade classes," explained DeGenova, assistant principal at Slippery Rock (Pennsylvania) High School.

That teacher approached DeGenova with an old SRA reading kit and asked if he could use it. He saw the repetitive drill and the format of the kit's exercises as a tool for raising scores. "Since we had been consistently the lowest-scoring building, 'why not' was my answer," said DeGenova. "I cleared it with the district office.

"Due to the enormous amount of drill in the program, the teacher took a great deal of criticism. So did I. However, at the end of the year, the test results indicated tremendous gains in our building. We finished in 2nd place in the district by less that one point. Similar results followed the next year."

DeGenova learned a valuable lesson that year: "It is not a new law, method, or technological advance that creates success. Good teaching is simply good teaching; and that is what motivates students to improve. Good, old-fashioned, hard work on the part of the teacher, student, and parents motivates students to reach higher and achieve success."

Contributors to This Article
  • Sue W. Astley, assistant headmaster and elementary principal, St. Martin's Episcopal School, Atlanta, Georgia
  • Larry Davis, principal, Doctors Inlet Elementary School, Middleburg, Florida
  • Jim DeGenova, assistant principal, Slippery Rock Area High School, Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania; also part-time elementary principal Har-Mer Elementary, Harrisville, Pennsylvania
  • Patrice DeMartino, principal, Sacred Heart/St. Isidore Regional Grammar School, Vineland, New Jersey
  • Marilyn Koepke, curriculum coordinator, Cedar Creek School, Ruston, Louisiana
  • Kim McLean, principal, Calgary Academy, Calgary, Alberta (Canada)
  • Marguerite McNeely, principal, Alexandria Magnet Middle School for Math and Science, Alexandria, Louisiana
  • Michael D. Miller, principal, Saturn Elementary School, Cocoa, Florida
  • Dr. Les Potter, principal, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
  • Mary Smith, principal, Whitebead Elementary School, Pauls Valley, Oklahoma
  • Paul Young, principal, West Elementary School, Lancaster, Ohio (past-president, NAESP, 2002-2003)