Courtesy of the Tulare County Office of Education
Sycamore Valley Elementary 5th-grader Mia Angulo has a "can-do" attitude toward math. Her school is participating in a math improvement project led by the Tulare County Office of Education that stresses a "growth mindset."

One burning question for many 5th-grade teachers in Tulare County districts is: Can they triple students’ math proficiency on standardized test scores in four years?

“It’s a lofty goal, considering the state average,” said Shelah Feldstein, a Tulare County Office of Education math staff development and curriculum specialist who is helping to spearhead a project that aims to improve 5th-grade math achievement in a network of area schools and districts.

The Central Valley Networked Improvement Communities, known as CVNIC, include 1,091 students and 41 teachers across 15 schools in eight school districts: Burton School District in Porterville, the Cutler-Orosi Joint School District in Orosi, Dinuba Unified, Exeter Unified, Tulare City School District, Visalia Unified, and the Sycamore Valley Academy charter school and Valley Life Charter Schools in Visalia.

Before the project started in 2015, 5th grade math proficiency in participating schools was 17 percent, compared to a statewide average of 30 percent of 5th-graders meeting or exceeding state math standards on standardized Smarter Balanced tests. The following year, the percentage of students in the project reaching proficiency rose 3 percentage points to 20 percent, matching average 3 percentage point growth statewide, but still scoring far below the state average of 33 percent of 5th-graders meeting or exceeding standards in 2016.

Many of the students in the project face academic challenges. About one-third are English learners and more than three-quarters are low-income. These percentages are much higher than the state averages of 22.7 percent English learners and 59.4 percent low-income students.

By 2019, the network aims to beat the odds by raising its 5th-grade math proficiency level to 51 percent.

Complicating this goal, the participating schools use five different curricula. And before the project began, participants had never collaborated with each other.

The network aims “to become a hub of hubs” – not just for Tulare County – but for the entire Central Valley of California. The group’s strategies are to use an “improvement science” approach to strengthen the network, focus deeply on math content and shifting instruction, and building the network’s supportive capacity.

One of the main ways the group has worked to excite students about math has been to develop positive classroom cultures and “growth mindsets” in math. This means students are realizing they may struggle a bit, but their hard work will pay off as they increase their understanding of math concepts.

Feldstein said the network expects to see growth in achievement when the state releases test results later this month.

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