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Ongoing assessments help identify gaps for student improvement at a Mississippi high school.

Just as miners excavate the earth in search of precious materials, school administrators at Gautier High School (pronounced Go-shay) extract valuable information from student data. Even before incoming freshmen step onto the campus of the Mississippi high school, faculty members will have already studied the test results of eighth-graders at the neighborhood middle school to identify and thus prepare for the academic needs of their new students. This process of analyzing student assessment data to target areas of improvement is what former Principal Wayne Rodolfich calls "mining data." "Our efficiency level at identifying student need is so high that we're able to address the needs of every single student," said Rodolfich, who took the helm this school year as superintendent of Gautier's school district.

The effective use of data has led to dramatic gains that have earned Gautier the state's top ranking of "Level 5/Superior-Performing School" over the past three years and, in 2005, recognition from the U.S. Department of Education with the No Child Left Behind--Blue Ribbon Schools Award.

The school has made such significant strides in student achievement that, in spite of the disruption of classes for a month and a half by Hurricane Katrina, approximately one-third of its 850 students made the honor roll for the first report card period.

"They're very resilient," explains Principal Bernard Rogers, whom Rodolfich brought out of retirement to be his successor. "They really were glad to get back, because to them getting back to school gave them a sense of normalcy."

Rogers, who served 26 years as a teacher and principal in Alabama schools, replaced Rodolfich after he accepted the position as chief administrator of the Pascagoula School District. Credited for increasing the graduation rate from 78 percent to 84 percent during his three-year tenure at Gautier, Rodolfich said he believed that at the district level he "could make a larger contribution to a greater number of students. And I felt like I had a leader in place who could do a better job than I could."

The reason Gautier's staff are able to identify gaps in student learning is because they can extract data from a battery of tests administered by the state, district and school throughout the year. In other words, the wider the outcomes, the finer the scale for pinpointing individual strengths and weaknesses. If teachers then have a direct measure for who is learning, they can better understand what is working and adjust their instruction accordingly.

The most notable success of the staff's data mining skills has been gains in mathematics achievement. On the Algebra I test, which Mississippi uses for its accountability system in high school, Gautier's scores for students who tested proficient increased from 70 percent in 2001-02 to 94 percent in 2004-05. These results show not only an improvement in overall performance, but also a narrowing of the achievement gap. Within that time-frame, the gap between white students, who make up more than half of the student body, and black students, who account for the largest ethnic minority group, narrowed from 10 percentage points to a mere two percentage points.

These high scores, even among subgroups--for example, economically disadvantaged students achieved 94 percent on last year's math exam--can also be traced to the high expectations teachers have of every student. "We start from day one telling the students that they will be successful," said algebra teacher Yvonne Hopper. "They begin to believe that they have the power within themselves, and that they're not just coming to school and being passed over."

The Algebra I test, which consists of 63 multiple-choice questions and two open-ended items that require essay responses, is one of four assessments the state uses to measure student learning in key subject areas. Implemented four years ago, Mississippi's Subject Area Testing Program also includes end-of-course exams in English II, Biology I and U.S. history, all of which students must pass in order to graduate.

"It keeps us on pace," said senior and honor roll student Laura Skelton about the state testing. "It gives us a point we know we have to reach. I think it drives each student to do better in class."

Gautier's staff are hoping students will do equally well on the English exam, although the school's proficiency score of 53 percent is significantly above the state average of 39 percent.

However, similar to its success in freshman algebra, Gautier's scores on the introductory biology exam have exceeded state averages, which can also be attributed to the faculty's efforts over the past few years to expand course offerings to include astronomy, zoology and marine biology, as well as to the school's location, which enables students to receive a hands-on education in the sciences.

Built on a wetland, the nine-year-old campus is equipped with a nature trail, pond, greenhouse, fruit orchard and several vegetable gardens, allowing students to explore the very specimens they read about in their textbooks. This modern facility also includes three science labs, three computer labs, a parent center, a fitness center and a multimedia room. Aided by these resources, Gautier sponsors every October a districtwide Wetlands Workshop for sixth-graders, which, unfortunately, was postponed this school year due to hurricane damage.

Just as the state assessments, based on the state standards, provide a clear pathway for academic achievement, for Carolyn Cowart, the district tests provide midpoint checkmarks for both students and educators.

"The [district assessment] system ensures that we cover everything in our state curriculum," said the ninth-grade biology teacher. "So it's a checkpoint for me to make sure that I'm teaching everything I'm supposed to, and it's a check-point for the students to make sure they've learned everything they're supposed to."

Cowart serves on the committee of teachers who revise each summer Pascagoula's Anchor Learning Module Assessments, commonly called ALMAs. They are a series of practice tests, each with 40 multiple-choice questions, given throughout a semester. The tests run parallel with the state standards for each subject assessed, as in Biology I, for instance, where each of the course's seven competencies, from the "nature of science" through "ecology," has a related test.

"The students know that when they get ready to take an ALMA, it's something we've already covered; we've mastered this. This is just our putting it on paper so that we can see how close we are to passing," explains Cowart.

Faculty members use the cumulative results from the ALMAs and their own classroom assessments that they create to identify students in need of tutoring. Gautier's tutoring program, which Rodolfich calls "the cornerstone of success," is an extensive network of extra academic help that provides preparation, enrichment and remediation services to address all skill levels.

This initiative is one of many that has contributed to a vast improvement in performance: as the school's administration acknowledges, test data alone do not drive reform. Gautier's assessment results point to the high quality of its teachers along with other intervention strategies that include a student mentoring program, a homework lottery and intensive parent communication, which amounted to 43,000 parent contacts in one school year.

"We have to make that extra effort to ensure that our students achieve," said Rogers. "We're famous for making home visits to parents we have been unable to reach to ensure that they are part of school improvement for their children. It has been those efforts along with the traditional ones that have made a tremendous difference in improving student achievement."

Gautier High School

* Grade Span: 9-12

* Locale: Suburb

* Total Students: 850

* Race/Ethnicity Enrollment: 57% white, 40% black, 2% Hispanic, 1% Asian

* Free or Reduced-Price Lunch Eligible: 49%

* English Language Learners: 1%

* Special Education Students: 3%

* Percentage Proficient: In Algebra I, 94%; in English II, 53% (based on ninth- through tenth-graders assessed on the 2004-05 state exams).

* Interesting Fact: Although it was in the path of Hurricane Katrina, Gautier resumed classes a month and a half after the storm.
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Gautier High School
Author:Ashby, Nicole
Publication:The Achiever
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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