Above-average learners show big gains with flexible grouping and adaptive testing

iStock_000020536048XSmallOver the past eight years, a Meridian, Idaho school district has operated a remarkably successful program that gives the brightest and most gifted students the same opportunity to grow academically as other students in the district. “The district now sees the fallacy in the long-held belief that the brightest students can progress and thrive on their own, says Linda Clark, superintendent of Joint School District No. 2.

The initiative began in 1998 when, to the astonishment of administrators, testing revealed “that all the achievement growth occurring in the district was limited to the lowest-achieving groups of students. The more proficient students – not merely that small group called “gifted,” but the above-average high-end learners – showed little or no growth.”

High achievers show little growth

Information from the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Growth Research Database backs up the school district’s findings. Clark notes that its data show that more than 20 percent of schools that show exceptional performance on standardized tests fall into the bottom quartile in terms of student growth.” Their students are treading water while students at other schools continue to grow.

To address this inequity, the 30,000- student Idaho school district partnered with the Northwest Evaluation Association to provide computerized, adaptive tests (CATs) that are more challenging for advanced students. “When a student answers a question correctly, subsequent questions become more difficult, thereby alleviating student boredom.” If a student answers a question incorrectly, the questions become easier, helping to allay frustration of less advanced students.

One of the great advantages of this approach is that teachers could “quickly refocus materials and curriculum as needed.” Clark says. It also allowed the district to track the growth of students in specific subjects over time, resulting in more substantive and effective teaching.

Idaho worked with the Northwest Evaluation Association to develop the Idaho Standards Achievement Test to evaluate students in grades 2-10 every fall. “In the spring,” Clark says, “schools administer a blended version of a CAT and a fixed-form test aligned to grade-level content and achievement standards for grades 3-9, required by No Child Left Behind.”

Shift to flexible grouping

One of the big changes made by the district was a shift to leveling, or flexible grouping, in individual classes and within and across grades. “Unlike traditional tracking, which brands students with a certain ability level and keeps consistently in that track, flexible grouping is fluid and based on ongoing assessment data. …We now look at student data in language, reading, and math and regularly group and regroup students according to skill level in those areas.”

One early success with flexible grouping was in math. Most of the elementary schools now offer pre-algebra, with some even offering algebra. According to Clark “statistics substantiate the program’s success: Of the 310 6th graders entering Lowell Scott Middle School this fall, 100 qualified for the accelerated math program, compared with just 45 of the 400 incoming 6th graders in 1999 . . . .”

Most of the 27 grade schools in Meridian now use flexible grouping, “According to analyses conducted by the Northwest Evaluation Association, Meridian is among the highest growth-producing districts in the United States.” Many students may spend part of the day working above their grade level in one subject and below their grade level in another.

The district also has implemented a new gifted and talented model that allows parents to place their children in a classroom where all the students are gifted and talented rather than simply providing special services one day a week. Six gifted and talented classes at the elementary level and a modified program in middle school allow students to complete a curriculum that aligns with the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, but also take on a more challenging curriculum that includes group projects, individual assignments, in-depth research and reading geared toward higher ability levels.

“Gifted and Growing”, Educational Leadership, November 2005, pp. 56-60

Published in ERN November/December 2005 Volume 18 Number 9

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