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Oklahoma State University

A Model for Student Growth

Thursday, February 28, 2013

February 28, 2013

This article appeared in the 2013 issue of Vanguard, a publication highlighting research, scholarship and creative activity at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Mwarumba Mwavita is an assistant professor in the School of Education Studies and serves as Director of the Center for Educational Research and Evaluation (CERE) OSU.

mwarumbaA research model designed by Mwarumba Mwavita is making a significant and positive impact on one Oklahoma school district and gaining notice across the state and nationally.  

Mwavita, who teaches in the Research, Evaluation, Measurement and Statistics (REMS) program in the College of Education’s School of Educational Studies, developed a comprehensive model for mapping student achievement growth.  His unique, big-picture approach tracks student growth in a single school year and considers a variety of factors that can influence student achievement.

Mwavita has worked closely with administrators, teachers and students in the Western Heights School District, an independent school district west of Oklahoma City, over the last four years, implementing the model and analyzing the data to better understand challenges and find solutions that are effective.  

“Most studies have been working only on mapping students’ growth from year to year, (comparing) different students,” Mwavita says. “For instance, a third grade student in one school year is compared to third grade students in the next class.  The same students are not tracked over time.”

As part of Mwavita’s model, students are pre-tested at the beginning of a school year, given a medium test in the winter and finally a third test in the spring. The test is standardized, computerized and adaptive to individual ability. (It has been aligned Oklahoma’s Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) but can easily transition to the state’s new Common Core Standards).  The test is also diagnostic, revealing if a group of students does not understand a concept.

“It helps inform instruction, indicating what teachers should focus on,” Mwavita says.

“This assessment model is data-based, but goes well beyond the normal testing program,” says OSU Regents’ Professor and REMS Professor Dale Fuqua. “It provides timely feedback to both students and teachers.”

The immediate feedback is motivating for students, helping them track progress and set goals. It is also valuable for parents.

“Parents are well-served by having immediate results several times a year to inform their participation in decision-making and use of interventions with students,” Fuqua says.

In the sophisticated system, all of the data gathered is recorded and accessible electronically by teachers and administrators. It has led to a culture where Western Heights depends on data for decision-making, and it has proved powerful for teachers.

More and more, discussion about education centers on evaluating teachers for effectiveness. Mwavita has seen strong buy-in from Western Heights’ teachers and students.

“We’re big believers in adaptive testing,” Kitchens says. “We absolutely believe that it’s critical to know who students are when determining whether a teacher is successful or not.”

Teachers have instant access and receive training on how to read the data, allowing them to immediately respond by designing instruction to meet students’ needs.

“A teacher has these students for one year,” Mwavita says. “Within that one year, you can evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness (with) that test after controlling for other variables such as initial ability, parental involvement, whether they are in special education classes or have free and reduced lunch status. If you put all of them into the model and what will remain is not explained by all of these other variables, we can use that residual effect to predict the teaching impact.”

Western Heights had battled mobility, with students coming and going into and out of the district. This drove the decision to test students at the beginning of the year on all the content they will be covering. It helps teachers know where their students initially stand academically.

“Dr. Mwavita has been so critical in helping us understand how to look at this data in a proactive way to use it in a proactive way,” Kitchens explains.

Another element of this model is the creation of and support for Professional Learning Communities (PLC). The PLCs, through meetings outside of the normal school day, formalize an opportunity to share information among teachers, learn more about students, and identify how their needs can be met in the classroom and beyond. Teachers are compensated for their time and work.   

“(Mwavita) has a great way with teachers,” Kitchens says. “His ability to interact with them in regard to what they see and what action they may take, I think may be the most important thing of all. He has a unique capacity to put people at ease and to have an open discussion about what the real issues are and what can be done on behalf of students.”

Mwavita came to Oklahoma State University, from Kenya, to pursue a Ph.D. in educational psychology, specializing in REMS. After completing the doctoral degree in 2005, he accepted at visiting assistant professor position at OSU. He has also served as Western Heights’ Director of School Improvement and Instructional Research and continues to support the district while working at OSU. His research interests are focused on mapping student achievement growth and improving student performance and teacher education.

Mwavita’s work has been noticed nationally. He communicates regularly with the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and has been asked to present at professional development workshops, showcasing the work with Western Heights in terms of growth modeling and changing the culture of the school.  

“It is not one-size fits all, but the principles of the model will work across school districts,” Mwarumba says. “Each school may have its own unique challenges and the model will take that into account.”

For instance, if a district has many high-achieving students, the model can help determine how best to challenge and continue to accelerate and motivate learning.

“A beauty of the model is that you can see it is more accurate and fair for teachers,” Mwavita says. “You can see growth even if (students) aren’t achieving at the average. Teachers are not ‘graded’ in the same way for students who only spend two months of the year in their class. It truly looks at the impact the teacher has on the student in the time they teach them.”
The work is a strong example of the university’s land-grant mission being carried out. Currently, Mwarumba and his colleagues at OSU have continuing conversations with other school districts in the state as well as the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“There is passion for making a difference in (the schools) in the state. Our job is to be resourceful to all stakeholders,” Mwarumba says. “How can we best serve the citizens of Oklahoma and be efficient in making a difference in our schools?”

That’s the question that guides the work.