Test scores have district looking for answers

A dministrators at Whitehall Central School District are reacting to the results of the latest math and English assessment exams and have begun implementing strategies they hope will improve students’ scores.

The results from the exams, which are taken in April by every student in grades 3 through 8, show that fewer than half the students met the state standard for proficiency in six out of 12 exams.

Fewer than half the students in third and fourth grade met state standards on the English exam and fewer than half the students in third, fourth, seventh and eighth grade met standards on the math test. Only 18.5 percent of eighth-grade students passed the math test, the worst rate on any exam in the district.

“The test scores are not at all what we want,” said David St. Germain, elementary school principal. “We expect more from our students and our teachers.”

The reasons for the poor results are multifaceted, administrators said.

St. Germain attributed part of the problems to teachers being out of the classroom for professional development related to common core training.

He said teachers are required to attend common core training and while it will ultimately enable them to tailor their curriculum for future tests and improve their instruction, the missed classroom time manifested itself in lower test scores this year.

Another factor that contributed to lower scores was the number of special education students remains high. Their scores are included in the overall results, even though those students don’t typically perform as well as their peers. According to the state Education Department, 15.5 percent of students with disabilities met or exceeded the state standard on the English exam across grades three through eight and 28.5 percent of those same students met standards on the math exam.

“We need to do a better job with our special-need students,” said St. Germain.

Superintendent James Watson said 22 percent of the students at the school could be considered students with disabilities last year.

While the student body has shrunk, the number of students with special needs has not. Watson said when the school had a student body of 1,000, the actual number with special needs is about the same as it is today, with about 750 students enrolled.

 

Poverty strikes

The district also has a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students, who perform poorer statewide than those better off.

For instance, only 41.4 percent of economically disadvantaged students, who are tracked by qualifying for free or reduced lunch, met standards in English statewide, while 71.6 percent of “non-economically disadvantaged” students met standards. A similar gap was found on the math test, where 53.3 percent of economically disadvantaged students met the state standard compared to 78.4 percent on of “non-economically disadvantaged” students.

But according to the New York State 2010-11 district report card, the percentage of Whitehall students who qualified for free or reduced lunch matches the state average almost exactly, at 52 percent. That is 10 percent higher than Washington County as a whole.

 

Changing tests

Kelly McHugh, high school principal, said the test itself played a role, especially in regards to the math scores.

She said the math exam was new and that teachers aren’t given an opportunity to look at the exam in advance.

“As a teacher, you want to start at the end. It’s difficult to plan your year around a test you aren’t familiar with,” McHugh said.

In contrast, the state Regent’s exam on which Whitehall performed very well, are much more cut and dry and have changed less. There are also years of past exams available for teachers to review.

But with cut scores expected to increase next year, teachers will need to do a better job of preparing students for new standards.

“I think if we provide sound instruction and the students understand the concepts, the test will take care of itself,” Watson said.

Budget restraints have also cut into resources. Teachers and teacher aides positions have been cut or reduced and despite declining enrollment, classroom sizes have grown, although an effort has been made to keep those increases as small as possible. But with other districts facing similar woes, administrators said faculty will need to adjust.

“The bottom line is we have to do more,” St. Germain said.

Officials have already begun to put in place a plan they believe will improve scores.

The elementary school started to devise an improvement plan in January and will implement that plan beginning as soon as next week.

The plan will include more professional development, particularly in the area of reading comprehension and teachers will work with students on a standardized form of note taking they hope will improve student’s ability to retain information. Students will also be asked to complete more summary writing to demonstrate their grasp of the material.

Officials are also looking at a new textbook series that do a better job covering what students are expected to understand on the tests.

 

Development paying off

The professional development work that has been done will also be a key component of improving math scores at the high school.

McHugh said the district has already contacted officials at Fort Ann High School, where middle school students performed well on their math exams, and their math teacher will work alongside Whitehall’s teachers on developing strategies to improve student performance.

“Math is very different. The ways we teach have changed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years and the teacher from Fort Ann will work is going to work with us on our curriculum,” McHugh said.

Sixth-grade students, who will be located in the high school for the first time, will also received additional support. Their day will be split into three main focus areas: math-English, social studies and science.

Part of the math and English block will include a 40-minute period where an extra teacher is available to provide support in smaller group settings.

In a similar vein, seventh-grade students will have a fifth core area of study devoted entirely to literacy for the first time. Each day, students will work with teachers on improving their reading.

And while it won’t affect scores next year, the district will provide extra support in algebra and recommend advanced intervention services to some of last year’s eighth-graders who didn’t perform well on their math exams.

Not all the results were poor. Nearly 60 percent of students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade met standards on the English exams, more than 57 percent of sixth-graders met standards on the math exam, and 22 percent of students achieved the highest possible score on the fifth-grade math exam.

But with standards set to increase again in 2013, the district will have to a better job.

“We have to keep moving forward. We’ll look at what we did wrong and how we can fix it,” McHugh said.

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