Part 2 of WFPL’s series this week looking at three collaborative studies on Project Proficiency from JCPS administrators.

For the first time, studies are showing the affects of Jefferson County Public Schools’ “Project Proficiency,” the district’s response for turning around student achievement in its persistently low-achieving (PLA) schools, according to the No Child Left Behind Act. 

The effort ensures all students understand the top concepts in math and reading in-depth, and it requires teacher collaboration to improve student achievement.

Three practicing JCPS administrators recently co-wrote a capstone to earn their Educational Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Organizational Development from the University of Louisville.

The capstone challenged Project Proficiency's assumed success by looking at student math scores from the 2010-2011 school year and comparing those scores with various control groups.

Joe Burks is JCPS assistance superintendent for high schools.

Burks studied the most at-risk students and found significant gains in their achievement levels.

“If these dramatic gains that we made in one year were genuine gains, they couldn’t just be the higher functioning students moving the average up. It had to be every kid,” he said.

Burks used criteria in a 2007 study, Johns Hopkins University, Balfanz, Herzog, and MacIver, to determine which students had a higher risk of dropping out. He then compared 8th grade and 11th grade math scores from at-risk students with and without Project Proficiency.

“There was a drop in the percentage of students that met proficiency in the students without Project Proficiency,” he said.

Gains in proficiency among those 11 schools surpassed state averages. In reading, JCPS schools saw a 14 percent gain in proficiency, while the state averaged a 4.6 percent gain. In math, JCPS schools saw a 16.7 percent increase in proficiency, while the state averaged 5.7 percent.

The idea behind Project Proficiency is to steer away from subjective grading practices and measure student achievement using standards-based grading.

Teachers are expected to give the most weight to learning the top three concepts in reading and math over a six-week grading period and they must make sure all students are scoring at least 80 percent on assessments. If they aren't, there are interventions in place.

Burks was the “mastermind” behind Project Proficiency, according to Glenn Baete, JCPS high school liaison and capstone co-author. But the district has been moving to a standards-base model for several years, Burks said. After traveling to other school districts, Burks helped JCPS put together its own version of Project Proficiency.

“We put together components of things that had been working in spots and in pieces and in certain schools,” he said.

Burks then looked at the data from at-risk students who took the state assessment test (Kentucky Core Content Test) in math and social studies. Project Proficiency was only implemented for math and reading, so if scores in social studies went up, the project may not have had the impact educators had hoped for.

“Is it possible that their scores went up dramatically because they were just fired up or it was a better group of kids?” said Burks.

But the student scores for at-risk students in math went up, and social studies did not see dramatic gains.

Burks argues that both math and social studies teachers were under similar pressure to perform since PLA schools were under NCLB sanctions.

All 21 high schools implemented Project Proficiency at some level during the 2010-2011 school year, and all saw gains, Burks said. But the 11 schools that implemented the project in full, including 10 PLA schools and one school teetered near the edge, saw the greatest gains, he said.

Why not implement Project Proficiency across all schools?

Part of the reason, said Burks, is because the project was a response to NCLB and not all schools were required to drastically turn around student achievement.

“There wasn’t quite the urgency in some of the schools as the others,” he said.

The other reason is because the schools were PLA, they were not subject to approval from the School-Based Decision Making Council, said Burks. This allowed the project to expedite to implementation.

WFPL's series will continue tomorrow with a conversation with Glenn Baete who looks at how Project Proficiency helps close achievement gaps.