Meanwhile, a second group of students in the class solved equations on computers while a third hammered through word problems in workbooks.
Small-group instruction is an almost-daily occurrence for the Oxford Middle School students and they are hardly alone. The school system has pushed similar teaching methods for its elementary and middle school students for the last few years. The result: a narrowing of academic achievement gaps among white, black and low-income students in math and reading — placing Oxford among the top 20 best-rated school systems in the state.
According to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, which provides non-partisan statistics about state schools, Oxford’s school system has narrowed academic achievement gaps in many of grades three through eight in reading and math since 2005.
“By and large, it looks like they are doing relatively well … I’d say they’re top tier, in the top 20 of the state’s 131 school systems,” Joe Adams, research coordinator at PARCA, said of Oxford schools. “As a group, they are one of the better systems in terms of overall performance.”
PARCA’s academic achievement gap ratings are broken down between subgroups of white and black students and between poor and non-poor students. The ratings are based on scores that exceed the standards of the Alabama Reading and Math Test, which is administered to all state third- through eighth-graders and covers Alabama’s content standards. Subgroups in a school system are shown to have improved academic achievement gaps if their annual test scores are better the state average.
In 2003, Oxford had just three subgroups with academic achievement gaps better than the state average. By 2011, the school system had 11 subgroups with smaller academic achievement gaps than the state average. For instance in 2011, the achievement gap between third-grade black and white Oxford students in math scores was 15.7 percent. The state average in math among the same subgroup was 21.7 percent, however. Overall, among the third through eighth grades in Oxford, each grade improved their ARMT scores between 16 percent and 48 percent from 2005 to 2011.
Jim McLean, dean of the Department of Educational Studies in Psychology, Research Methodology and Counseling at the University of Alabama, said improving academic achievement gaps among students is pivotal for the state.
“When you look at prisons, you tend not to find people with good educations and you find people who dropped out of school,” McLean said. “You’ve gone from producing a good citizen to producing one you have to support.”
McLean said small class sizes are important when trying to improve test scores and lower achievement gaps.
“One thing we really do a lot of here is small-group instruction and we progress monitor students in both reading and math,” Willingham said.
Shirley Dodd, seventh-grade language arts teacher at Oxford Middle, also used small groups Wednesday with fellow teacher Noco Walls, who focused on special education students in the class. One group read a book and answered questions while another researched aspects of the book on iPads.
“It makes a world of difference,” Dodd said of small group instruction.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star