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  • Dr. Kristi Cole

The Path to Middle School Proficiency

Last fall we published a blog highlighting Forward Test Score results for TLA 3rd grade scholars.  As noted, the Forward Exam is a required state exam taken each spring; results are reported each fall.  With shared goals of both transparency and learning, we are following up with an additional blog, this time focused on middle school.

TLA Ramp Up

TLA opened our doors in fall of 2021 at the tail end of covid, still confronting infections and the inevitable disruption of the virus, but open and in the building nonetheless (at least most kids, most of the time). Our ramp up to a full K12 school has been implemented over the course of four academic years within two grade bands – elementary and middle/high school.  Each year we have added a new class in K4 and grade 6 and existing scholars transitioned into the next grade. 

Academic Year

Elementary Grade Band

Middle/HS Grade Band


K4 – 2



K4 – 3



K4 - 4



K4 - 5


In the elementary grades, this strategy allows us to build foundational skills as scholars grow.  Middle school implementation requires something different. 

The Middle School Experience

For a majority of scholars, middle school as an entry point to TLA is about recovery.  While this may be true in part because of the covid conditions of our opening, it is also possible that it is true given middle school proficiency rates in Beloit which currently sit at approximately 14% in ELA and 4% in Math.  Staff, scholars, and families may face the fact that there is serious and significant catch-up work to be done. 


Our initial baseline for the work was established with our first round of MAP testing in fall of 2021. [i] Across the middle grades projected proficiency rates in our first round of tests were approximately 20% in ELA and 10% in Math.  Rates of growth in year one were significant; more than 200% in math and approximately 115% in ELA.  A new group of scholars joined us in year two.  Excess growth continued in year two though at slightly lower rates in math, leading us to the middle school Forward scores at the end of 2022-23 noted in the chart below. [ii]

Academic Year, 2022-23

Grade 6

Grade 7

Grade 8









The bottom line, despite significant rates of growth, the path to proficiency is steep. 


Teaching Matters. 

TLA along with virtually every district in the country will tell you that finding teachers is a struggle and finding exceptional teachers is even harder.  And if we are honest, the data tells us when there is a struggle to get stable and quality teachers in front of children in every classroom, children’s outcomes suffer.  For TLA, adding grades and thus adding teachers every year increased the challenge.  Finding mission aligned teachers and offering high quality coaching is and will remain a fundamental strategy for supporting scholar growth. 

Curriculum Matters.

Math has presented some paradoxical challenges.  We have demonstrated that we can help scholars achieve incredibly high rates of growth in middle school, however, the path to achieving proficiency is a serious challenge.  In the last school year, we saw scholars struggling with and frankly complaining about our math tools.  The Forward scores reinforced what we saw and heard, and we pivoted to an alternative curriculum this school year.


Culture Matters.

Experts sometimes say that culture eats strategy for lunch and its true.  Acclimating each new group of middle school scholars to the TLA way – from uniforms, cell phone restrictions, homework expectations and behavioral expectations has been bumpy at times.  Honestly, we did not anticipate how hard it would be to bring in a new group of 6th grade scholars each year.  But we are learning, adapting and improving as we go. 


Individual Interventions Are Critical.

Sounds cliché but it really is true that every scholar is different.  They struggle with different foundational skills and must have intervention supports that target what they need specifically.  Continuing to build these interventions will be critical to our long-term success. 


Parent Partnerships.

Forming collaborative relationships with our parents/families is important.  It is our responsibility to ensure that parents are given accurate and detailed information about individual scholar strengths, challenges, and progress.  TLA parents must support scholar learning, ensuring scholars are in school, completing their homework and meeting the expectations we have for our school community.  It has been important for parents to understand their role in ensuring the success of their scholar.

A Few Closing Thoughts

One observation we wish we were able to evaluate is the impact of hands-on learning, particularly for middle school scholars.  Our model of exploratory classes ranging from applied arts to construction to manufacturing and engineering is both engaging and integrates relevant, real-world math and reading applications.  Can it impact outcomes?  Time will perhaps help us answer that question.


Having adequate supports and caring deeply and holistically about the success of every scholar is incredibly important.  Our scholars come through the door each day with their own stories and challenges, and it does appear to be true that mental health challenges are rising.  We must empathize, support, AND teach our scholars so that they build the skills they need for a successful future. 


These scores help underscore the often-cited importance of ensuring scholars are proficient by third grade. 


This work is hard.  Incredibly hard. 

Dr. Kristi Cole is the Chief Education Officer at The Lincoln Academy in Beloit, Wisconsin.


[i] MAP signifies Measures of Academic Progress and is designed to project proficiency rates for spring testing.

[ii] Forward Score Data for all schools is publicly available on the DPI website  WISEdash Public Portal - Department of Public Instruction



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