Alignment with state to 'take time'
Winona Area Public School Board members approved a district curriculum plan last week that determines the approach schools will take to improve test scores and better align curriculum with state proficiency standards. Before taking a vote, the board asked some pointed questions to administration concerning when all district classroom instruction would be aligned with state standards, and when test scores can be expected to improve.
In the past, community members have received an annual curriculum report in the mail because of a state requirement that the information be shared with the public. Now, explained District 861 Curriculum Director Jenny Bushman, a school district is able to simply post the document on its web site.
Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA-II and MCA-III) scores for District 861 are included in that report, as well as newly-released science test scores. Board members asked several questions about the MCA data for the district. (See pages 1a and 5a.)
Board member Gary Shurson asked about the decline in math scores between grade four and grade five. For the 2011-2012 school year, 78.5 percent of fourth graders met proficiency standards in math, but only 51.1 percent of fifth graders made the grade. “The drop is pretty dramatic,” said Shurson. “What is going on there?”
Middle School Principal Mark Anderson explained that in the prior year, only 32 percent of fifth graders met the math standards, so the scores presented showed almost a 20 percent increase in the number of fifth graders who met proficiency standards. He said the reason for the increase was an emphasis on teaching to state standards.
Anderson also reminded the board that changes in the way students are taught in fifth grade this year may help raise test scores again. Instead of having all core subjects taught by one teacher for each class, fifth graders now have course-specific teachers for those core subjects. This way, explained Anderson, individual teachers can become more familiar with one set of standards, rather than having to teach five subjects. He said teachers are now teaching “strictly to the standards that the state has, not that we weren’t in the past,” but he had been reminding teachers to keep on that track. He said the elementary math specialist has also been working with fifth and sixth grade students—and teachers, too—rather than only assisting at the elementary level.
District administrators in the past have sent mixed messages about the alignment of the curriculum with state standards. They sometimes stressed that classroom instruction is in line with the test requirements. At other times, administrators have admitted there is work to be done to make sure curriculum and test subjects are closely matched. Last week, board members pressed administrators for more details on the issue.
How close is the district to having all courses aligned with those standards? asked board member Michelle Langowski.
“We are very close,” said Anderson, referring to the curriculum at the Middle School. He said Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)—which are teacher groups formed to improve curriculum, instruction, and test scores—will soon be comparing curriculum among teachers in the same grade and subject areas. “Our goal is by May, with all the PLC time [for study] and time we have in the building, that we’ll have our curriculum really well set for the following school year, standards-wise,” he said.
“When do you see us meeting or exceeding the state standards?” asked Shurson.
Bushman said the elementary school test scores are already meeting or exceeding state averages. “I think the biggest issue we need to correct in this district is alignment with state standards,” she said, adding that until the district gets to that point, kids will continue to struggle with standardized tests.
Shurson again asked when those scores would improve. “I don’t know that I would put a date on that,” replied Bushman.
Langowski asked whether the high school curriculum was still not aligned. Bushman said that if in the past there was a curriculum area that wasn’t covered, teachers today have to remediate students in order to address that past instructional deficiency, and that takes time. “So I don’t know what that date [when test scores will improve] would be, and I don’t know that I would want to speculate,” Bushman repeated.
How far are we from matching curriculum to state standards, asked board member Mohamed Elhindi. Thirty percent? Twenty?
Bushman said at the elementary level, the goal is to have the standards and curriculum matched by May, and at the Winona Senior High School, the goal is for the work to be done by the end of the school year.
Elhindi again asked what percentage of that work had been done.
Bushman said the elementary schools were “right on track,” at 100 percent in math and language arts. For the middle and high school levels, she again said she didn’t want to speculate.
“They’re all over the board,” said Winona Senior High School Principal Kelly Halvorson of the progress made at her school toward aligning the curriculum with state standards. Bushman explained that the answer to the question depended on the content area. Math curriculum has been studied for alignment, she said. “But [we’re working on] just making sure that every teacher is teaching to those standards, and no matter who a kid gets as a teacher, they’re still going to get that viable curriculum.”
When asked about some of the work being done to improve student proficiency on standardized tests that members of the community might not know about, Bushman said that teachers are constantly assessing what students have learned and where they might be struggling. The goal is “data-driven instruction,” she said, and some of that work may be very informal, like the results from a quiz or exit question a teacher might ask. Teachers are taking that information and focusing on areas where kids are having trouble, she said.
PLCs are teacher groups at each school building, assembled by grade at the elementary level and by grade and subject matter at the secondary level. The groups work with a facilitator, who is also a teacher, and are expected to examine test score data and curriculum in order to improve instruction and student proficiency.
During the board meeting last week, Shurson asked about a budget line item that would pay each PLC facilitator $600 for overseeing three upcoming meetings. The list of payments for 50 facilitators will cost over $29,000. Bushman explained that the money was from staff development funds. “It’s money that the committee can set aside for whatever they vote to spend [it on],” she said.
Elhindi said that when new state test standards are demanded, as they will be in math graduation requirements soon, one of the challenges can be working those test standard changes into the curriculum. He asked if the PLCs would be working on those changes, and if the district was using professional development funds to help with the task.
Bushman said the district would use professional development funds as the need arose. Sometimes a PLC will ask for specialized training, she said, and that time is used for professional development when it’s needed. We’ve got a lot of resources within our own staff and district, she added, and if we need training from the outside, that can be done, as well.
Board member Ben Baratto made reference to a discussion about PLC work at a recent board meeting. At the previous meeting, Bushman had said it would take some time for the PLC groups to take action on improving curriculum and instruction. She said at a district where she had previously worked, it had taken six years for the group to get “comfortable.”
Baratto asked what took six years to figure out. “Six years is a long time,” he said.
Bushman explained that during PLC meetings, there is a shift from simple conversation among colleagues to conversation that “continually comes back to student learning.” Calling it a “culture change,” Bushman said time is needed to take those conversations from the casual level to a focused, high-level discussion about change in school. “That’s what takes time,” she said, “to develop that culture.”
New science scores
Winona Area Public School (WAPS) students scored below the state average in science for all three grades tested during the 2011-2012 school year. For fifth and tenth graders, the percentage of students who passed the test was at least 10 percent lower than the state average (see page 1a and 5a).
In Winona County, fifth graders at Lewiston-Altura had the largest percentage of all students who met proficiency standards in science, with almost 65 percent either meeting or exceeding state standards. Only 32.7 percent of Lewiston-Altura eighth graders, however, met the standard.