New internal assessments elicit cautious optimism for Toledo Public Schools

“We believe the changes in the district are really starting to take hold,” TPS Chief Academic Officer Jim Gault said.
“We believe the changes in the district are really starting to take hold,” TPS Chief Academic Officer Jim Gault said.

As Toledo Public Schools found itself mired in public turmoil in recent months, with a search for a new superintendent, a state investigation that criticized attendance reporting practices, and the defeat of another levy, district students might have quietly made significant academic progress.

New internal tests used for the first time by TPS this year hint at possible gains almost across the board in reading and math scores at the district’s K-8 schools. While nearly every school shows growth, the tests show some long underperforming schools making major progress. Students at Glenwood Elementary, for example, would jump two rankings under the state’s old report card system, if the scores hold up.

District administrators are cautiously optimistic. While other districts have used the same tests to track student progress, and TPS officials believe the scores are predictive of performance on the high-stakes state exams taken in the spring, there’s no way to be sure until the official results are in. Celebrating too loudly now could backfire, if the internal results end up being misleading.

“We believe the changes in the district are really starting to take hold,” TPS Chief Academic Officer Jim Gault said.

The internal tests, called STAR reading and math assessments, are from a company called Renaissance Learning. They are meant to tie themselves to state exams, such as the Ohio Achievement Assessments, to predict how students will perform on state report cards.

While TPS has long done internal testing throughout the year to gauge student progress, the STAR exams are part of a new effort to aggressively monitor whether district initiatives are working as expected. They are short, computer-based tests that allow teachers to see where students need help or are excelling, and adjust instruction accordingly, Mr. Gault said. They can be administered constantly throughout the year.

They also have been paired with new training for teachers and regular in-school meetings, where teacher teams discuss strategies to boost performance.

“This district has never embraced data to the extent it has now,” Mr. Gault said.

Renaissance said its tests have shown statistical links to performance on state tests.

“Although no test can predict with perfect accuracy how well a student will do on another test,” Renaissance Research Director Eric Stickney said in a statement, “we know that STAR Reading and Math have been rigorously evaluated by independent groups such as the National Center on Response to Intervention, and found to meet the highest standards for reliability, validity, and accuracy.”

Mr. Stickney also pointed to research that showed strong correlation between STAR assessments and the Ohio Achievement Assessment for third-grade reading.

And Mr. Gault said that other internal testing has showed similar academic gains this year, strengthening evidence that the STAR results will be predictive of OAA success.

Just as encouraging, Mr. Gault said, is that the internal results also show special education students closing the achievement gap this year with regular education students.

The STAR exams don't assess science or social studies, leaving TPS officials in the dark about potential performance in those areas.

When TPS test scores dipped slightly last year, administrators said that the move to K-8 buildings and the disruption it caused staff and students were at least partly to blame. They predicted that the second year of the transformation, when schools settled down, and new initiatives developed, should bring progress.