The Ottumwa Courier

September 27, 2013

School improves math scores

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Nearly two out of three schools across Iowa have been placed on the naughty list for failing to reach a federal requirement on a reading and math proficiency test. So Ottumwa officials weren’t shy about pointing out that one of their schools has actually climbed off that list.

“Wilson Elementary has been removed from the Schools in Need of Assistance list in the area of math due to our student achievement,” said Jody Williams, the principal there.

The No Child Left Behind law orders that 94 percent of students in school be able to pass standardized math and reading exams. Next year, it will be 100 percent. A small number of students who are severely disabled may be excused on a limited basis but not students with learning disabilities or those who arrive from a foreign country not speaking English.

In fact, educators say, the law doesn't take into account where a child started or how much progress they have made that year.

State Education Department Director Brad Buck called the system "unfair," the Associated Press reported this week.

He said results show the program is a bad fit for states and needs to be revised. Buck says the current system doesn’t acknowledge different needs, nor does it reward schools making progress with disadvantaged students.

In Ottumwa and other districts, students coming from low-income homes, on average, score considerably lower than their wealthier peers. Wilson school does have challenges: 95 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. And about a third of their students are English Language Learners (ELL).

"It has to do with expectations," said Williams. "Other places, that [demographic] may be considered an obstacle. Here, it’s not."

The difference, said Superintendent Davis Eidahl, was clearly the extra effort by teachers at the school, which he's seeing in schools around the district. So what did those teachers do differently?

"We had high-quality professional development provided to us by the AEA (Area Education Agency) in the area of math," said Williams. "We raised our expectations of students in the area of math, which aligns with the common core [curriculum, which is] rigorous. We also had our teachers collaborate around math instruction, changed how we reported math progress and we had frequent formative student assessments so teachers could adjust instruction."

Frequent testing helps?

"That's one of the keys: Our teachers look at those assessments, with their colleagues, and they adjust their instruction to what the data was telling them," Eidahl said.

They're doing more than seeing what "grade" a student gets on a quiz. Teachers are looking at which questions all kids are getting wrong. Or they ask the class, "Who thinks this is the right answer," so they are casually, frequently checking on what kids are understanding and what they are not.

“That type of instruction, that’s hard work,” Eidahl said.

He explained, we can test kids as often as we want, but if the teacher doesn’t do anything with that data, then there will not be a noticeable improvement. They check each skill kids need to be proficient. When they aren't, teachers go back over that skill, either with the group or with individuals. Because they did so many "checks" on the students, Eidahl explained, teachers actually had "a good idea they were going to do well" on that standardized test.

There are two more Ottumwa schools on the SINA list; parents have been notified. Wilson is still on SINA for reading. That will change, too, Williams said. She and her teachers have already started on an action plan for reading.

During the 2012-13 school year, 64 percent of the state’s 1,361 public schools did not meet standards for test participation and proficiency in reading and mathematics, according to the annual report.

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark