By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday morning, assistant school superintendent Dennis Parman unpacked a box containing the test results that will determine whether Havre schools meet the standards of President Bush's No Child Left Behind.
The results are from the Measured Progress Test, which was administered for the first time last year, and which will continue to be used as the main factor in determining a school district's academic performance. This year, the schools will be told what percentage of students need to have scored at the proficient or advanced levels in reading and math to satisfy the state's No Child Left Behind standards. That percentage will be set in November. In the future, the schools will have to show adequate yearly progress from last year's marks so that in the year 2014, 100 percent of students are proficient or advanced in reading and math.
"Today we can say what percent of our own kids (were proficient or advanced) versus the state," Parman said.
All of the Havre Public Schools grades that tested last year - fourth, eighth and 10th - outperformed the state.
Two weeks ago Havre schools learned how their fourth-, eighth-, and 11th-graders did on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Iowa Tests of Educational Development, standardized tests that are given nationwide. Havre students scored below the state average in reading on the Iowa tests.
The difference between Havre students' achievment on the Iowa test and the Measured Progress Test is not surprising; in fact, it is to be expected, Parman said.
The tests are very different. The Iowa tests are multiple choice, whereas the reading section of the Measured Progress Test includes constructed response questions, requiring students to answer in their own words. The two tests are also scored differently. The Iowa tests compare students to each other, while the Measured Progress Test compares students to a performance standard. The Montana Office of Public Instruction developed its own test in response to the No Child Left Behind policy, as did many other states.
The new test results released Tuesday are good news, but it does not guarantee that the schools will meet the No Child Left Behind standards, Parman said. The test also looks at subgroups by gender, race, socioeconomic status and special needs. Those subgroups must also meet performance standards.
"If one subgroup doesn't meet the criteria, the grade doesn't meet it. If one grade doesn't meet it, the whole district doesn't," Parman said.
Last year, an average of three years' performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was used to determine the previous year's academic performance. Neither the elementary school district, comprising the three elementary schools as well as the middle school, nor the high school district, passed muster. The eighth grade was the only grade in the elementary school district to fall short, but that meant the entire elementary district failed.
The outcome of last year's failure was a letter to the school districts from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, Parman said. Another failure would likely have the same result. Afterward, the districts have three years to show adequate yearly progress, which allows for fluctuation. A failure after three years would mean that the district would be asked to begin a planning process to solve the problem, Parman said.
"No school district can say 'no harm, no foul,' because it's only going to get worse," Parman said. "Eventually, if you don't make it, the worst-case scenario is that we fire the teachers responsible for low performance and hire new ones."
Havre schools are a long way away from facing such a problem, Parman said.
"Overall we have to be pleased with these results. Compared to (Iowa Test of Basic Skills), we know that this math (test) was harder and that this one may have been a better test," he said.
An average of 45 percent of fourth-grade students across the state were proficient or advanced in math, while 55 percent of Havre students were. Havre eighth- and 10th-graders were also strong in math, with 72 percent of eighth-graders scoring at proficient and advanced levels, compared with the state's 64 percent, and 70 percent of Havre 10th-graders, compared with the state's 60 percent.
Differences in scores between Havre and the state were closer in reading, but with Havre slightly ahead.
On average, Havre's Native American students scored better than the state's. But the scores of other subgroups were below the state average. Havre students receiving free or reduced lunch - the indicator the state uses for socioeconomic status - scored below the state average for that subgroup in fourth- and 10th- grade reading. Students who received extra help on the test - special education students or students who have trouble testing - scored below the state in the eighth and 10th grade for both reading and math.
With the goal of 100 percent of students proficient or advanced in both subjects 10 years away, Parman has chosen to focus on an intermediate goal of 85 percent of students in the proficient and advanced categories five years from now.
As for the 100 percent, he asked: "How do you get there?"
The teachers are also asking themselves that question as they become accustomed to an education system that is putting more emphasis on standardized tests.
"I hate the concept of teaching to the test. We are teaching to help them to be successful on the test," Sunnyside School fourth-grade teacher Dorothy Peschon said.
To help prepare for the reading portion of the Measured Progress Test, Peschon has required her students to back up their answers with proof.
"In the past, I was satisfied with a right answer," Peschon said. Now Peschon makes her students prove their answers with passages from the reading material, a skill emphasized on the constructed response portion of the Measured Progress Test.
"How did Peter's feelings change? How do you know?" Peschon said she now asks her students.
"Only one group (of fourth graders) has left after this test, but fifth-grade teachers say they are seeing an improvement," Peschon said.
Peschon said she has noticed that discussion has been emphasized more in the past five years, years she says that schools have been more concerned with standardized tests. Peschon has been teaching fourth grade in Havre since 1976.
Fourth-grade teacher Pam Fanning said the new reading program, introduced last year, has helped her students a lot.
"One thing my kids didn't understand is what the question was," Fanning said.
Peschon also noticed that her students had trouble identifying the purpose of a question. After a story about the pros and cons of owning hamsters and gerbils, she asked her students what pet they preferred. One student answered, "A cat. Because my mother likes cats," she said.
The teachers both noticed that the math skills required of fourth-graders have changed.
"Now they'll give them a chart or graph. They tell the kids to get information and say what will happen two years down the road," Peschon said.
"Originally math (for fourth- graders) was computation and problem solving. Now it is geometry, probability, algebra, all the components," Peschon said.
Before the first Measured Progress Test, the schools gave a pre-test. The teachers will also see results from a pre-test for the upcoming Measured Progress Test by November.
"When we test in the fall and get information early, that means we can do something about it. I really liked that in the fall," Peschon said.
Peschon and Fanning both said the pre-test results allow them to single out students for specific help rather than wasting class time giving remedial instruction for the whole class.
Both teachers also stress some test-taking strategies.
"Research shows a need for water," Fanning said.
All the students received water bottles and snacks to help them while taking last year's test.