Grow Network tells teachers, parents what test scores mean

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Chicago schools have long been awash in test scores, but the numbers were in such an unfriendly form that neither schools nor parents found them very useful for improving achievement.

The Grow Network is designed to change all that. Imported from New York City at an annual cost of $2 million, Grow is an Internet-based program that analyzes test scores for teachers and parents and provides suggestions to both on what to do next.

Its report to teachers answers three questions: How did my students do? What do they need to learn? And what learning tools are on the Internet?

“You can click on an individual student and find out not only their [total] score, but their score in each content area,” notes Shazia Miller, the district’s associate director for instructional support. For instance, “they’re good at vocabulary, but in terms of making inferences from the text, they’re struggling.”

Miller says the analysis encourages teachers to see each student’s strengths and weaknesses and not simply label him as a high or low performer. However, teachers also can see how each student and the whole class compare to their peers nationwide.

The reports for parents show how their children scored against national averages, break down the results into categories like “factual understanding” and “inference and interpretation,” and offer suggestions on what help the child needs. A box titled “What you can do at home” provides specific suggestions. Schools receive guides in six languages—Spanish, Polish, Arabic, Bosnian, Chinese and Urdu—that they can reproduce for parents, and there is a resource section in Spanish on the Grow Network Web site.

The school report sent to principals, area instructional officers and other officials provides a bigger picture, says Michael Alexander, senior program officer with the Chicago Public Education Fund, which is chipping in $200,000 a year to help defray CPS costs for Grow.

“A reading coach on an area team might go to a school, and the conversation would start with, ‘Here’s a printout of your reading performance. What do you see as the key priority areas, and how is your team planning to address these areas?'” Alexander says.

“They’re starting a conversation with data, checking the understanding of that interpretation with the school, and asking the school to talk about its plans.”

Miller says Grow is part of the administration’s push to have schools, area offices and central office make decisions on the basis of hard data. “We need to evaluate programs carefully and make decisions about not only what’s a great idea, but what’s a great idea that panned out after we tried it.”

Started in New York

Grow began as a pilot project in New York City in the spring of 2000 and became a systemwide program there a year later. At that point, Grow representatives came to Chicago to talk to principals, the teachers union, foundations and then-CEO Paul Vallas. It got off to an inauspicious start, as Vallas announced his resignation the day before the meeting. But once CEO Arne Duncan’s administration was fully in place, Grow representatives resumed the conversation.

CPS signed on in the fall of 2002.

“There’s a lot of data out there,” says Patrick Haugh, a Chicago native and former teacher in New York who is co-founder and executive director of Grow’s Chicago office. “As these exams are becoming increasingly important, both for accountability purposes and for other reasons, there’s very little being done to make this data useful.”

Currently in Chicago, Grow analyzes the results on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, given each May to students in 3rd through 8th grades, and readies reports by the following September.

“When we came back in September, this work was there for us,” says Haneefa Muhammad, a 7th-grade social studies teacher at the Peirce School of International Studies in Edgewater, which Haugh and others cite as a leader in implementing Grow.

During the first year, Grow worked mostly to raise awareness of its existence. Now it is doing intensive training in two dozen schools. “We’ve gotten away from the basic orientation sessions to ‘How do I use this in my building? What is the hook? What are the things that are going to make my teachers come back to this?'” says Haugh.

To that end, the network added a new feature, at CPS’ request, that allows teachers to update students’ achievement in different skills as the school year progresses. “It builds the students’ confidence and self-esteem,” Muhammad says. “They’re not waiting to take [next year’s] Iowa test to see how they’re progressing in specific skill areas.”

CPS also would like to add the capacity to track students’ progress over time, Haugh says. From Alexander’s perspective, the most important issue is to continue to promote the program’s use in a non-threatening way.

“CPS plans to push deeper implementation throughout the district, but more from a professional development stance, as opposed to, ‘You have to do this,'” he says. Continued funding from the Public Education Fund will depend in large part on whether Grow becomes integrated into the regular work of people in schools, he adds. “As long as we see them moving in that direction, we’ll continue to support it,” he says.

Thus far, principals have embraced the program while teachers are lukewarm, according to a report released in January by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Little enthusiasm

“Last year, people were like, ‘OK, if you’re around next year, maybe we’ll listen,’ ” Haugh says. “There are a lot of different reforms being thrown at schools, and they have to be selective in what they’re going to grab onto.”

He says he’s confident that more teachers will get plugged into Grow as time and training sessions march on.

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, agrees that principals find Grow useful, but she says they are not enthusiastic about it either. “There’s not a lot of energy around it that I’m getting,” she says. “I can’t say I’ve heard people rave about it, but I can’t say people are unhappy with it, either. It’s a tool. It’s not cumbersome and not difficult to use.”

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), says she hasn’t heard much feedback about it from parents, who were not surveyed by the consortium. “The advice to parents that is generated out of the test scores is quite generic,” she says. “Not that it’s dangerous—it’s not going to hurt if you help your child do this or that. It is a handy piece that gives parents advice.”

Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer.