The state of Minnesota measures student success by the numbers, using standardized tests to show what classroom content individual students have mastered, and what they have not. The coursework that students are expected to learn for those tests is contained within content standards issued by the state, often referred to as "state standards."
Winona Area Public School (WAPS) Board members have recently spent considerable time discussing a new curriculum study that shows that courses at the Winona Senior High School (WSHS) do not always include all of the state standards students are expected to learn.
The board reviewed a condensed version of the curriculum study earlier this month that showed elementary and middle school core curriculum are fully aligned with state standards, while three of the four core subject areas at WSHS are not. A more detailed report on the alignment of WSHS courses was the subject of a Winona Post report earlier this month, and several board members mentioned during the meeting that, since the story was published, they have heard parent concerns about possible curriculum deficiencies.
Board chair Mohamed Elhindi stressed the importance of communicating with parents who may worry about course curriculum and lackluster secondary state test scores. Of the curriculum study, he said, "They are going 'There it is. That's why kids aren't doing well.'" As WAPS Curriculum Director Jenny Bushman went over the curriculum report, Elhindi aired a question he said was on the lips of district parents: "Is there any correlation between our test results and being a little bit behind in the standards in some areas?"
"There's always a correlation," replied Bushman. "To what extent that correlation is there, I don't know that I would even begin to speculate on that. Do I think we could do a better job? I think the answer is yes."
WSHS courses: nearly two-thirds not fully aligned with standards
According to the WSHS portion of the curriculum study, more than 130 courses are not completely aligned with state standards, listed as either "in progress" or in the "beginning" stages of identifying standards and aligning course curriculum with them. No science, social studies, business, agriculture, or music courses were listed as completely aligned with standards, and only world language courses contain all of the state standards, according to the report. Three of 26 art classes were listed as completely aligned with state standards, 13 of 21 English courses were identified as being fully in line with state-required course content, and one of 14 industrial technology courses were listed as on par with state standards.
All core content areas at elementary schools and at the middle school were listed as fully aligned with state standards.
Analyzing the data
An "in progress" status for a course — representing the bulk of WSHS classes not completely aligned, according to the study — does not mean that teachers are not teaching state standards in their lessons, explained Bushman. "Some assume teachers are not teaching any of the standards," she said. "That's not true. If you take a look at the nature of the standards themselves, it's just good teaching."
An "in progress" status means that while courses do include state standards, "we might be missing some of those standards," Bushman told the board. In some areas, administrators found that there was overlapping content among classes, and in others, there were content "gaps." Bushman said the work to fully align courses at WSHS should be finished by the end of the school year. While the end of the school year is the goal, Bushman reminded the board that coursework is always being refined, and standards change over time, too.
W-K and Jefferson elementary schools have drastically improved test scores in recent years, Bushman added, recalling the "student achievement teams" mandated several years ago for those schools under the No Child Left Behind legislation. Today, all district buildings have Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) — teacher groups focused on improving academic achievement similar to the student achievement teams, that have proven to help improve test scores. Bushman said district officials must work to hold themselves accountable as they examine the use of teacher evaluations and peer review, as well.
"We've talked about the word 'gap' and 'overlap,'" said board member Jeanne Nelson. "If we have a gap somewhere, we do need to be very intentional about ferreting out exactly what it is we need to do to fill that curriculum, to cover that." Because the district has fewer instructional hours in the school year than other districts, Nelson said it was important to make sure that educators make the best use of classroom time.
Board member Steve Schild said deficiencies in standardized test scores existed among districts across the state. He said he feared people would look at numbers that represented a snapshot of student achievement and believe the district was doing poorly. "That number is going to cause undue fear and concern and reflect inaccurately with what is going on in the schools," he said.
"This testing is how our students are judged," added Elhinidi. "That's the way it is. We don't have a choice, other than to make the best of it."
Maybe, said board member Tina Lehnertz, board members were forgetting about the students and what they might have been going through on the day of the standardized tests. "Maybe we, as a board, are creating this concern because we're talking about it all the time," she said, adding that the district employs education experts who are doing their jobs. "Hopefully, they're working toward what we expect them to work toward. I would hope that people would come to us and not believe everything they read in the newspaper or hear on the radio."
To view the full WSHS curriculum report, visit www.winonapost.com.