By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
It's not often a grown man is actually happy to lose his hair.
Last fall Box Elder elementary school principal Dave Nelson and high school and middle school principal Wes Fehr pledged to have their heads shaved if every grade in their respective schools scored above the national standard on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills standardized tests.
Test scores are in, and in front of the elementary school students Monday, Nelson's hair fluttered onto the gymnasium floor.
Box Elder saw every grade except ninth and 10th grade test above the required 45 composite score. Last year five classes scored below 45.
The composite score combines reading and math scores, and also factors in portions of the test dealing with science, social studies and the use of reference materials.
Box Elder School, which houses K-12, saw improvement in seven of the 10 grades that took the test last year. The scores for third and sixth grade declined but remained above 45. Tenth grade remained the same at 42.
Currently, schools are only required to test students in the fourth, eighth and 11th grades. In an effort to better monitor children's progress, Rocky Boy and Box Elder have opted to test grades one through 11. Rocky Boy also tests grade 12.
That is in part because more was at stake for those schools. Box Elder Schools Superintendent Robert Heppner said Box Elder this year faced losing some its federal funding if it did not raise its eigth-grade test scores.
"All our federal grants depend on us showing progress every year," he said.
Heppner said grades that test below a required level for two years in a row are put on in the federal school improvement program by the state Office of Public Instruction. Schools receive a state grant, and have three years to lift their test scores above the required level. After that, the state can come in to replace teachers and adminstration and make changes to curriculum.
The eighth grade at Box Elder School was on school improvement for the second year last year, after testing at 43, and faced state intervention if its scores did not increase above 45 this year. It must score above 45 again next year to be off school improvement.
Heppner said the fourth grade got off school improvement two years ago.
"It was a big accomplishment for our kids," getting above 45, said Judy Stewart, the academic counselor in charge of school improvement at Box Elder School. "I had kids for weeks on end coming in and asking me" for the scores.
The school decided to use computerized testing programs to gauge individual students' progress in reading and math this year. The students also use the software to take practice tests at least three times a year to prepare for the real thing, which they take every spring.
In February, Rocky Boy guidance counselor Jim Anderson consulted with teachers and the administration to suggest methods for improving test taking and test preparation, Stewart said.
In the lower grades, the computer programs have been integrated into the existing curriculum.
The second grade showed the biggest increase from last year, increasing 14 points. Behind them were the 11th graders and eighth graders.
"We're extremely proud of them," said second-grade teacher Lisa Preeshl.
"Thrilled," agreed the other second-grade teacher, Mindy Nanini.
"Throughout the year we did a lot of test preparation," Preeshl said. "We were suprised," with the size of the increase, "but we had been stressing how important these tests were all year."
The teachers said they spent about 25 minutes with each of the computer programs - Accelerated Math and Accelerated Reader - every day, integrated into their regular curriculum.
The teachers also created a "Super Bowl" for the students to prepare for the tests.
"We kind of set it up like a game to see who would study the most," Preeshl said.
In the middle school grades, Stewart created new reading and writing classes for sixth- and eighth-graders, and made them mandatory for students who had scored below 45 on last year's tests.
A new math class was not created, but Accelerated Math was integrated into the curriculum.
Of course, there are only so many class periods in a day, so something had to give.
"I took them out of their specials," said Stewart, referring to electives like art, home economics and tech classes. "I was not a popular person when I did that."
Stewart said the results were rapid.
Last fall after the program was introduced, the number of books checked out from the school library every week increased from 250 to 650.
This spring, students who did not take the reading class increased their composite score by an average of two points, while students who took an extra reading class increased it by an average of eight.
Next year, she said, the reading class will be mandatory for grades six through nine, and will be an elective for sophomores, juniors and seniors.
They will be changed from one year to a semester, so students can take an elective the other semester.
Stewart said it is possible that some of the increase in the students' scores are the result of greater familiarity with the tests rather than an increase in reading and math proficiency per se.
Still, Stewart is confident that there has been genuine progress.
"If you're improving on reading tests, you must be improving on reading," she said.
The teachers agreed.
"They're doing more of it," Nanini said. "They actually are improving."
Stewart said this year's results also suggest the effectiveness of a strategy called "looping," in which a teacher goes with the class into the next grade level, spending two years with the same group of students.
Lisa Preeshl followed her first-grade students into the second grade this year, and her class demonstrated the highest score improvement at Box Elder Schools.
Stewart, who taught classes for two years at a time in Browning, said that is not a coincidence.
"You start at day 181 instead of day one," at the beginning of the school year, she said.
The strategy is used elsewhere in the state, but not previously in Box Elder's school district.
Stewart said she would probably take this year's test results to the school board to urge it to allow more teachers to use looping.
The success was a cause for celebration Monday at Box Elder School.
"That's not too bad," Fehr said, watching from the gymnasium bleachers as the last of Nelson's hair was shaved.
"Makes him look younger," added Heppner.
Finally Nelson stood up and pointed up to the bleachers.
"Next year if you guys do that again, I think we'll do Mr. Fehr!"
The students gave a cheer.
"They were close," Fehr said. "I really thought I would be out there. I would rather have been."
There's always next year.
Heppner said the gains were a "pretty significant increase," but that it is a gradual process.
Stewart agreed. She said test scores depend on so many variables, from teachers to the testing environment to the situation at home.
"We're trying to figure out what's going to make the difference," she said.
Heppner said he probably won't know how the scores stack up against other schools in the state until the statewide results are published sometime in June.
Test scores are also available for other area schools:
In Havre, fourth-graders received a composite score of 53 this year, a decline of five points from last year's fourth-graders.
Eighth-grade students received a composite score of 56, one point lower than last year's eighth-grade students.
Eleventh-grade students declined from a composite score of 60 last year to this year's score of 57.
Havre Public Schools gives a separate test to all grades to measure progress.
Assistant Superintendent Dennis Parman said the test helps track individual students' progress. Preliminary results from that test, Parman said, suggest a more positive picture.
"We can unquestionably say that we've seen growth, and we are pleased with that," Parman said.
Parman said that even though this year's fourth-graders scored lower than last year's in reading, the achievement level tests showed the individual students improved their scores from last year.
He said this year's eighth- graders did significantly better than they did when they were in seventh grade, and that 11th- graders scored as well as they did when they were in 10th grade.
Rocky Boy School tested above 45 in five of the 12 grades. The first grade, and sixth through 10th grades tested below the standard.
Rocky Boy School saw improvement in seven of the 11 grades. First grade, and 10th through 12th grades declined. Ninth grade stayed the same at 35. Like the numbers for Havre schools, those scores were comparing different groups of children.
"We'd better start really showing real improvement, but we are," said Anderson. "We are moving in the right direction."
Like Parman, Anderson said that is more clear when the same group of students is compared from one year to the next.
When tracking last year's 10th-grade scores to the the same students' scores in 11th grade this year, for example, Anderson said all the students improved their test scores.
He stressed that Rocky Boy and Box Elder schools are cooperating to raise scores, not competing.