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Assessing Context at Oregon Schools Recognized for Closing the Academic Achievement Gap
Assessing Context at Oregon Schools Recognized for Closing the Academic Achievement Gap


One tenth of Oregon’s students arrive at school speaking a language other than English. Only one in two of those youths are likely to graduate from high school. This statistic from STAND for Children Oregon is alarming. Perhaps more alarming are statistics showing the gap in test scores between white and Asian students and their African American, Native American, and Latino counterparts in STAND’s “A Closer Look at Oregon’s Achievement Gap” report. But this isn’t a story about what schools are doing wrong.

This is a story about the complexities involved in recognizing schools that are doing something right.

When you walk into a school, you can feel it. Parents talk about it. But how do you measure it in a quantitative way, this idea that teachers and principals care?

—Dr. Esperanza De La Vega             

For eight years, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) recognized high poverty and/or minority schools making significant progress in closing the achievement gap with the Celebrating Student Success Awards. Schools were selected to receive the awards based on a review of student achievement data and a series of “narrative responses” detailing programs and strategies undertaken by the schools in order to close the achievement gap. Sounds like a simple process, right? Not according to Dr. Esperanza De La Vega and Dr. Moti Hara, both of the Graduate School of Education at PSU.

Sure, ODE had plenty of raw data on student achievement from every school in the state, but what can raw data tell you about the circumstances a student sitting in a desk is coming from? What can raw data tell you about the intentions, efforts, and strategies of the principals, teachers, and aides at individual schools?

According to Dr. Hara, it takes a significant amount of time and effort on the part of ODE to bring together the quantitative and qualitative data to determine the schools deserving of Celebrating Student Success Awards. And furthermore, unlike the reporting of federally mandated accountability reports, recognizing schools for closing the academic achievement gap is something self-initiated by the ODE.

“Sometimes you have to look at what people are doing right,” Dr. De La Vega said, “rather than focusing on what they’re doing wrong. And that was the approach we decided to take with this research project. We knew the 13 schools nominated in 2011 had made progress closing the achievement gap. But we also knew each of the schools was unique. So we were interested in the contextual factors at each of the school sites.”

In the spring of 2011, Drs. Hara and De La Vega, both at the end of their first years as faculty at PSU, began a mixed methods research project as co-principal investigators. The following year, in the fall of 2012, they were each awarded Faculty Enhancement Grants for their proposal: “Exploring Contextual Factors: A Mixed Methods Inquiry on the Ins and Outs of Closing the Academic Achievement Gap in Oregon Public Schools.” The two partnered with ODE—both De La Vega and Hara made note of how helpful ODE had been in their pursuit of the study—and asked what questions it would ask given the time and resources to conduct such research and they set out, collecting and examining data.

“ODE and the schools had all this information,” Dr. Hara said, “the quantitative data on student achievement and the narrative responses on the applications for the award provided by the schools. We came along and said, ‘now that you’ve recognized these success stories, let us take what you have and go learn more from these schools.’”

“We went out and listened to people,” De La Vega added, “heard their stories, learned about what was going on in their schools and how they perceived their work. These were schools with a lot of students living in poverty, large numbers of English language learners, high percentages of ethnically diverse students. These were schools facing huge odds, and yet they were doing something remarkable.”

The research began with a focus on qualitative data. Principals, teachers, and instructional aides were interviewed. Focus groups were conducted with parents in both English and Spanish. In analyzing the data, Drs. De La Vega and Hara began to notice some commonalities amongst the schools. Many of the schools that had successfully worked to close the achievement gap possessed a clear set of instructional goals. Drs. Hara and De La Vega also found these schools had high expectations of their students, as well as inclusive and collaborative instructional leadership. Despite recognizing commonalities between the schools, Hara and De La Vega were quick to point out that the processes for selecting the Celebrating Student Success Awards recipients were complicated and could change from year to year.

“One of the analysts at ODE said it would be great if we could come up with a comprehensive process for selecting these schools that didn’t require tweaking every year,” Dr. Hara said. “That’s where the quantitative side of the study comes into play. In order to learn from the right people, we need to be sure we’re identifying the right schools. We have access to data dating back to 2004 and ODE has granted us access to data going forward for the next 12 years. We’ll be able to continually revisit the data, reevaluate the analysis process and hopefully devise a way of analyzing the data that is methodologically sound. It’s an iterative, system improvement process.”

De La Vega and Hara envision their research as a part of a feedback loop in collaboration with ODE. First student achievement data is used to identify schools that are endeavoring to close the achievement gap. Once identified, an in-depth qualitative inquiry is conducted to explore the contextual factors that are unique as well as common among the schools. The lessons learned from each of these schools then inform the quantitative school identification process, and the system improvement cycle continues. Drs. Hara and De La Vega want to study the efforts the State is already making and contribute to their improvement.

We want to be sure that whatever learning takes place, both on the quantitative and qualitative sides, gets back to the Department of Education, because they're the ones with the power to act, to get something done, and we want to contribute to that.

Dr. Moti Hara        

The contexts for success won’t be the same for a school in Ontario as a school in Salem, or a school in Myrtle Creek, The Dalles, or Portland for that matter. Each school is unique and faces its own challenges. What remains the same, however, is the fact that closing the academic achievement gap is linked to efforts of social justice and therein lays the value in recognizing schools making efforts to do so. Drs. De La Vega and Hara want to learn from the schools making progress and make it easier for the State to identify schools doing the same in the future. 

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted October 2, 2013