Academic achievement in the eighth grade: can district policy leadership decisions influence high stakes test scores?
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The growing sentiment that American schools were falling behind in global economic competition was confirmed with the release of A Nation at Risk (1983). Since then, waves of school reform have swept across the country resulting in standardized, high stakes testing. To meet the increasing performance standards on standardized tests, educators have continuously searched for an effective intervention that can impact teaching and learning. A policy decision was made by district leadership at a large school district to implement Varied Strategic Learning (VSL). The VSL is an intervention to develop academic concepts and close achievement gaps for struggling learners. The study examined the effects of the policy decision to implement VSL for mathematics and reading achievement of 8th grade students. The ex post facto study employed a causal-comparative research design. The independent variable is the VSL program with two levels: (a) VSL; and (b) no VSL. The characteristic-present group consisted of 8th graders utilizing the VSL. The 8th graders not receiving the VSL formed the comparison group. The outcome measures were the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) mathematics and reading achievement scores. There were four research questions. Multivariate analyses of the data were completed to measure the relationship for each research question and the results showed the VSL groups performed at a lower academic level than the non-VSL groups in the majority of the outcome measures. The analyses indicated the VSL, overall, did not have a positive influence on the standardized test STAAR. However, standard deviations did show the potential for high scores. Thus, students may not have performed at the rigor required on STAAR but data showed an increase in general knowledge of mathematics and reading. Continued participation in the VSL program will likely benefit students if the district will focus on the aspects of the program that led to the higher scores. By cultivating those areas of high performance, district leadership can more closely align the VSL with standardized testing. Then, the VSL will be able to reach those higher levels of academic rigor required on STAAR leading to higher student achievement and the potential to meet accountability standards.