BHS ties for first in county

English Department demonstrates success through collaboration

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

BHS ties for first in countyFor the second year in a row, Burroughs High School juniors far exceeded their peers in the county and state with their performances in the English portion of the California Assessments of Student Performance and Progress.

“When we set the bar last year, there was an anxiety because if you have an initial high mark, it can be difficult to improve,” said BHS Principal Bryan Auld.

In 2015, 75 percent of juniors met or exceeded state standards. This year, that score climbed to 78. The California average is 59, and the Kern County average is 52. This year’s score was enough to put BHS students in a tie for first in the county, along with Stockdale High School — although the BHS team was quick to point out that within that score, more Burroughs students are in the top-performing category than those in Stockdale.

“We win the tie-breaker,” said Auld.

The assessment system is part of the educational reforms relating to Common Core. English Department Head Susie Burgess said that, considering that the pilot was launched only in 2014, she is pleased to see students staying ahead of the curve.

“There is always a fear of a sophomore slump,” she said. “So I’m glad that wasn’t the case.”

The new tests have completely overhauled the traditional “bubble sheet” format to a much more in-depth process, said Burgess.

“The new format is designed to gage critical thinking. Instead of choosing from a series of answers, students are expected to provide short, constructed responses. Students may have to choose more than one answer from multiple choices, so they have to choose both or they don’t get even partial credit. Students are truly being held to a higher standard.”

Burgess said that teachers have been given some tools that have intelligently informed their curricula. Among these is the ability to evaluate rubrics and sample responses provided by the test designers so teachers and students understand expectations. They also administer interim exams, which gives student practice with the format and allows teachers to evaluate performances to see where student understanding can be improved.

Teachers have also been able to use that data to help students understand what constitutes an effective response.

One of the benefits of the new test format, said Burgess, is that it is a more natural follow-on for instruction.

“The concept of ‘bubble the right answer’ is a little artificial,” said Burgess. Now students participate in a multiday performance task, which begins with a classroom activity and discussion that draw students in to ensure a common understanding of a topic. The final component allows students to process multiple resources into a writing piece.

“The assessment is not only more comprehensive, but it’s really more aligned with teaching,” she said.

“I hope what students are getting out of the activities we are doing, and the way we are breaking down the system, is that there is logic to supporting an argument. Being able to express yourself clearly is an important skill to develop.”

Auld acknowledged that al-though English performance is the most difficult to capture in traditional testing methods, its value to students is incalculable.

“English is one of the few departments where a student cannot say, ‘I’m never going to use this.’ It transcends all other subjects,” he said. “We talk about literacy, but communication skill is the one thing technology won’t change. It won’t change how we communicate. No matter what profession you choose, communication is key.”

Teachers pointed to department-wide collaboration, implemented last year, as another key component of improving instructional practices. Even though Burroughs has a strong English Department, “Typically we are very isolated from each other during the work day,” said Barb Walls. The late-start Wednesday schedule allows teachers to arrive early and delay the start of instruction to accommodate the much-needed time to strategize how to support student success.

Emily Marsh, a 2006 graduate of Burroughs who now teaches at her alma mater, said she has seen how the new assessments are a much better indicator of how students are doing.

“Students are tested on multiple modalities,” she said. “Not just reading comprehension, but writing, critical thinking — even questions that require research.”

Teachers also agreed that hey find it much easier to engage students in the current format. “They understand that this test can work as a college placement exam,” said Walls.

Not only can high scores allow graduates to skip certain prerequisites in college, but low scores can put students in mandated summer “boot camps” instituted for those seen as unready for college-level English.

“I also think that one of the reasons we have been so successful here is because our department is very passionate about this,” said Auld. “Yes, it’s very exciting to have a high score. But what that means is that our students are very well prepared.”

Auld and Burgess added that, thanks in part to the pioneering support from the district, students have been equipped with Chromebooks and technological tools to facilitate a more cutting-edge learning environment.

“Just this morning in AP writing, I was able to go in and view student essays and leave comments about whether they had a strong thesis statement or their handling of punctuation,” said Burgess.

“I think the ability to have this level of intervention in real time, rather than waiting for a paper copy, making corrections and giving it back to the student a week later, has really improved the process,” said Auld. “This has created a real partnership between our students and teachers.”

Burgess said that the entire faculty has partnered with English teachers to strengthen student literacy. “We truly do share this success with other departments on our campus. We are all working to help our students perform to the best of their abilities.”

“The BHS English Depart-ment’s implementation of a collaborative culture and utilizing assessments to determine next steps in the teaching and learning cycle are to be commended,” said Michelle Savko, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

“The bridge between high school and college-career readiness is evident in the CAASPP results.”

Pictured: Teachers in the Burroughs High School English Department are, from left: (front) Ernestina Wilson, Eileen Poole, Vickie Levack, Christine Gmitro, Emily Marsh and Lauren Olsen, and (back) Barbara Walls, Susie Burgess, Bob Hope and Ian Ball. Not pictured are April Griffin and Marsha Wonnacott. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2016-09-23