Administrators, teachers working to improve student test scores

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Student test scores over the past few years have been declining, and Whitefish School District administration is looking for answers.

Concerns arose among parents, administration and board members last fall after a report on Star testing and assessment data showed a slight decrease over the past three years.

The Star reading and math tests are 25-minute, adaptive tests taken by students three times a year, with the goal of informing the teachers lesson plans and identifying students who are falling behind.

Introducing the topic during the March 12 School Board meeting, Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt acknowledged the decline and said test scores are going to be a point of emphasis moving forward.

“I think the trend is pretty clear. We’re going down across all subject areas and across all grade levels in English language arts and math when we look at the percent of students that are proficient or advanced compared to those students who are not,” she said.

“I think this has propelled us forward to coming up with more specific and clear goals for the district,” she added. “I think this is a helpful understanding of our current reality, this is what we’re facing that we need to get a handle on.”

The results of the Star tests show the percentage of students who are scoring at or above their grade level benchmarks. In the last three years, there has been a downward trend within nearly every testing measure at the elementary, middle and high school level, with the sharpest drops coming in math and high school ACT reading scores.

Opinions differ on what to make of the numbers.

Trustee Katie Clarke noted, numbers don’t tell all, and the teachers in the classroom might be the ones who can make the most sense of the scores.

“One of my favorite quotes about statistics is that they’re like a bikini — they can reveal a lot but not everything,” she said. “There are some vital pieces that this can’t explain, so I wonder if there’s a process where we can ask the teachers why they think this is happening, and what do they think we could do about this.”

The discussion also looked at the dichotomy between a focus on test scores versus learning that prioritizes deep understanding without regard for scores.

In looking at how to interpret the data coming out of the tests, Davis Schmidt said evaluating the test scores could help teachers better understand what the scores mean for their students and how they can inform instruction. Creating that “data-driven culture” will be a priority in a future meeting, Davis Schmidt noted, looking at a draft for a strategic plan for the district moving forward.

Trustee Anna Deese also said that as a parent, she wouldn’t want to see test-taking overemphasized at the expense of deeper learning skills.

“I have a kiddo who will be a kindergarten next year, and what I wouldn’t want is a focus so much on test scores that he is in a classroom that’s training him to a test. What I would hope my kid experiences would be an interesting and engaging curriculum that teaches him. I would never want to walk around the school buildings and see a class that’s sitting there, just focusing on practicing how to take that test. That would go against I think everything I think we’ve supported with our strategic plan,” she said.

During the public comment period, one parent urged the board to turn to teachers for their thoughts on the issue.

“This is a tiny bit of data with test scores, but we really need to hear from teachers — what’s happening in class, are they at performance, is it just the tests that doesn’t measure them well? — and get that information rolling,” she said. “Are we doing enough to focus on mastery of the skill, and not just advancement grade to grade? These common core standards are all tied to grade level, but not everybody is reaching the same cognitive maturity at the same time.”

Those comments echoed what Davis Schmidt said earlier in the meeting.

Davis Schmidt said the experts are the ones instructing these students, and she and the board need to work to provide more clarity on curriculum standards and goals to help make the process easier for instructors.

“I think it’s important that we rely on the experts in the classroom. I’m not an expert in teaching reading, in fact it’s something that I don’t know how to do. I know how to teach high school, but I don’t know how to teach elementary school so I really do rely on the experts in the classroom,” she said. “We don’t have a core curriculum really anywhere, and I think that causes us to not have a guaranteed and viable curriculum across all of our classrooms.”

The conversation about improving the scores is just a start.

On Tuesday after press time Davis Schmidt was set to introduce her draft for a district-wide strategic plan during a board work session, which will be debated and discussed by staff, administration and the board with the hope of creating a guide for Whitefish Schools in the future.

Priority one in the plan is “Students in Whitefish Schools will achieve academically in literacy, mathematics and deeper learning skills,” and included are measurable goals like 90 percent of students achieving proficient or advanced marks in all of the district’s benchmark tests.

Moving forward, Davis Schmidt said she wants to make the discussion a public one that exists outside of just district administration and staff.

“I know that we’ve had some engagement in that process recently. We typically don’t have engagement from the public, and so it’s wonderful to have that conversation with other community members and our staff members,” she said.

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