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Park High teachers are working to improve state testing scores

Park High educators are doing more than just crossing their fingers and hoping students will do better on Minnesota Comprehensive Achievement Tests.

Through a concerted effort that includes tutoring, focusing on areas where mastery can be achieved and changing test environments, the teachers and administrators want to see the school shed its "One Star" status and get off the list of schools defined as not making "adequate yearly progress."

Reading tests will be given to 10th-graders and math tests will be taken by 11th-graders this month.

Finding educators who totally support No Child Left Behind federal law would be tough anywhere in the state. On the other hand, most say it does help schools zoom in on subgroups that are not doing well.

According to the rules, if subgroups -- identified as Asian, Black, Hispanic, non-English proficient and students receiving special education services -- do not pass the tests, it counts against a school even if the majority passes.

Students who do not show up for the tests are also counted as negatives.

Some students refer to MCAs as the "tests that don't count" and do not show up on test day. MCA tests are used to judge how well a school is doing its job, and are not required for graduation.

"We've been telling them it does matter," said Student Achievement Specialist Stacie Forti, who works at Park High School. "I will corral absent kids for make-up tests, something that was not done last year."

Escaping the list

Three years ago, Park was on the list of schools not making adequate yearly progress because non-English proficient students did not pass tests. In succeeding years, a minimum of 95 percent of students receiving special education services did not take reading or math tests.

Special education students who did take the tests were proficient in reading, but did not make the needed level in math.

Forti, and a team of other teachers including Rob Bach, Aaron Pozzini, Ellen Jackems, Beth Janey, John McGowan, Pam Bloom, Carolle Neisius and Jim Glazer, formed a posse with the support of administrators to find ways to improve test scores for all students as well as those in sub groups.

Teachers volunteered to give up some of their prep-time for individual tutoring.

Forti also attended a retreat hosted by the Minnesota Department of Education to learn additional ways to analyze five years of test scores. "It was a very deep analysis," she said.

Higher-order thinking

In reading, she found that overall students were reading well. On other levels, however, students struggled with analyzing an author's main idea. Students also had trouble distinguishing facts from opinions.

"It tests higher-order thinking skills," she said. "That's what kids will have to do when they go on."

Compounding the drive to achieve test success is that tests will be harder and longer this year. That will make it difficult to compare this year's scores to those in the past when scores are released in August.

Math tests will include "very advanced math," including algebraic patterns.

"Math shows how you think in a logical manner," Forti said. "It's like a foreign language. Can you think in a numerical way?"

To begin helping subgroups boost test scores, Forti considered other academic achievement scores. The result showed 240 students who could benefit from individual tutoring for 40 minutes twice a week.

Spotting the trends

In her test score analysis, some trends emerged. Black and Hispanic students showed an upward trend over time on tests. Asian student test scores showed a decline in math.

Asian reading test scores compared well to state reading scores.

At Park High School, the majority of the students in this group, about 40 students, are Hmong.

Three Hmong students felt they were being singled out as responsible for Park being a one star school after reading an article in the Park student newspaper.

"No way the Hmong students are responsible for Park being a one-star school," Forti said. "I would probably be mad, too."

None of the three students, who met with Forti to discuss their concerns, are on the tutoring list, but other Hmong students are, according to Forti.

The Hmong students said teachers do not understand their culture. Having Hmong teachers would help, they said.

"Amen to that," said Forti, adding that finding and hiring Hmong and minority teachers is very difficult in suburban schools, a conclusion supported by district officials. Hiring more minority teachers is a goal, however, in the recently approved district strategic plan

Some Hmong students identified as needing help are not coming to school and thus not showing up for tutoring.

Finding a new way

The question of "what should we be doing differently?" will be better addressed next year, including improving attendance and understanding cultural issues with help from the district office of integration, Forti said.

"We will have four to five interventions for next year," said Forti, adding they could include student to student tutoring, something being advocated by Mary Vang, a National Honor Society member at Park.

"We feel the need to look for ways to help groups of kids who don't feel connected to school and are not achieving their potential," Forti said.

In addition to tutoring, testing conditions will change this year.

On testing day, only students taking the test will be in school that morning.

Students will be in classrooms with one or two teachers for every 10 students.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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