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School of Social Work study shows success in closing the achievement gap in N.C. schools

A three-year focus on closing the achievement gap in Chapel Hill-Carrboro elementary schools has shown some encouraging  signs of success.

According to a UNC School of Social Work study, in a handful of schools where specific learning barriers were identified and targeted for improvement, third graders scored 1.67 points higher than expected on state end-of-grade (EOG) tests in reading compared to previous third graders at the study schools and third-grade peers districtwide. Similar results were found the following year when the students were fourth graders and scored 1.42 points higher on state EOG math tests.

The longitudinal study, which began in 2007, followed the academic progress of about 300 students from third to fifth grades in Carrboro, Ephesus Road, Frank Porter Graham and Morris Grove elementary schools. Morris Grove joined the study in the second year.

Over the course of the study, each school identified challenges to student learning and then collaborated with teachers and parents to design activities, workshops and programs to raise achievement. Most of the study schools developed goals to strengthen social behavior, learning behavior, and student enjoyment of school, and all showed improvement in those areas, said UNC researchers Natasha Bowen and Joelle Powers.

Strowd Roses Inc. and Triangle Community Foundation funded the study with a $375,000 grant, a large portion of which went to participating schools to help pay for materials, training, and intervention strategies to address student needs and improve achievement. The discretionary funding enabled the schools to be innovative and creative in designing their intervention programs, said Bowen, an associate professor at the School of Social Work.

The UNC study also examined the broader success of the schools’ efforts by focusing on EOG performance. The targeted schools’ scores were compared to each school’s previous years’ scores and to scores from other elementary schools across the district. Overall, findings showed that reading and math scores were higher than would be expected at two of three schools in the study’s first year, while math scores were higher than expected at all schools in the study’s second year.  In addition, the third grade math and reading test scores of boys at all study schools were better than expected compared to the scores of boys at other schools in the district. Final study results will be available after EOG data from the last year of the study are analyzed later this year.


Natasha Bowen, Ph.D. (seated) and Joelle Powers, Ph.D.

“The overall findings suggest that supporting schools with information about their students and money for effective interventions is a promising strategy,” Bowen said.  “Because so many efforts are underway to improve achievement in schools, it is hard to prove the effects of any one intervention program. However, the fact that we observed improvement in most of the areas that the elementary schools targeted gives us more confidence that the intervention programs contributed to better EOG scores.”

The study used the Elementary School Success Profile (ESSP) Model of Assessment and Prevention. The ESSP is an assessment tool that helps researchers and schools identify barriers to learning by looking more closely at the experiences of students at home, in school, in their neighborhoods and with families and friends. Schools design and implement interventions based on what they learn from the assessment.

“Teachers already know which of their students are struggling academically, and schools absolutely know that proficiency is impacted by more than just what happens in the classroom,” said Powers, a clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work. “But in many cases, schools and teachers don’t know much about other aspects of the child’s life and environment that may be preventing them from academic success.”

The ESSP, Powers added, helps educators identify the strengths and risks for a student’s overall school performance. The assessment tool’s online questionnaire can help educators pinpoint, for example, if a student’s difficulties in the classroom are related to anxieties outside the school, such as neighborhood violence or bullying. Teachers and parents also complete the questionnaire to ensure that schools have a rounded picture of each student.

At the four study schools, the ESSP questionnaire was given twice a year to assess student difficulties and progress. Each school also created a team of educators and parents to develop strategies to address student needs. Many of the interventions were selected from an online database of proven practices. For example, to improve academic performance, some schools used rewards for attendance and offered after-school tutoring.

To get more kids to class, Ephesus Elementary worked with parents to find carpool opportunities and introduced them to neighborhood groups that regularly walk with children to school. “Our data show that attendance has been steadily increasing in the past few years, which I believe is a direct result of this intervention,” said Victoria Creamer, interim principal at Ephesus Elementary. “Our expectation is that improved attendance will lead to improved student achievement.”

Bowen and Powers are encouraged that the elementary schools remain interested in working with UNC. Although more research is needed to explore the broader effects of the ESSP on the achievement gap, Bowen said the interventions have empowered schools to take a more active role in helping students succeed.

“The assessment is helping schools understand all of the factors that are important influences on school achievement,” she said. “So it’s helping schools look beyond what they usually look at to help kids. It’s giving them the data to understand what may be areas that need targeting and then letting the schools set their own goals and make their own decisions about how best to address student needs.”
Photos from March 24 presentation

By Susan White