Eighth graders improve test scores

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 4/25/01.

The eighth graders at Paynesville Area Middle School have produced improved scores on the statewide basic skills tests. Click here for chart.

Eighty-five percent of the 101 students in eighth grade passed the reading test, and 83 percent passed the math portion in their first try. These percentages of passing students were up significantly in Paynesville for the second year in a row and were the highest rates for Paynesville's middle schoolers since the start of testing six years ago.

The percentage of students passing reading was up five percent from a year ago, and math passing percentages were up seven. The 80 percent in reading last year was the school's previous high, while in math the students were most successful way back in 1996, the first year of the test, with 81 percent passing.

The eighth grade students took the tests in February, and the results were released last week by the Department of Children, Families, and Learning. Paynesville's results exceeded the state averages for both reading and math.

School officials expressed happiness with the rising scores. Middle school principal Deb Gillman was pleased by the scores, especially since the testing schedule was disrupted by winter weather. The math test was delayed by three days because school was late, forcing students to prepare to take the test three nights, only to be given a reprieve by the weather.

"The best thing we can do for the students and the school is to get them to pass it the first time," said Danith Clausen, the district's curriculum coordinator. "Then it's out of the way. They never have to worry about it again."

Clausen and Gillman attributed the success to two improvements. First, the skills required in the test have been better placed and covered in the curriculum. Second, the school is doing more to make the students prepared and comfortable for the test. "So when they come we can keep test anxiety down and they can do their best work because they're not worried about the test," Clausen explained.

Gillman said the school put extra emphasis on the logistics of testing this year and making the students comfortable. This included mandatory breaks, breakfast for every eighth grade student, and friendlier accommodations for students to take as long as needed to complete the test.

Gillman said the school always thought it had test-friendly accommodations, but did even more this year. "You do everything you can to make it a comfortable environment," she explained.

The test results also indicate how the school and each student did on different types of problems, allowing the school to check its curriculum as well as target students for improvement in certain areas.

The tests will also help chart the progress of the students, as they also take standardized tests in fifth grade. This year's eighth graders were the first class to have taken the tests as both fifth graders and eighth graders. Their results were down slightly – from 89 to 85 percent passing in reading and from 85 to 80 in math but Gillman said no conclusion could be made from this slight drop yet.

After six years of testing eighth graders, the curriculum and extra review sessions are now in place to prepare students for the tests.

"It took us a lot of years to get these support systems in place," said Gillman. "I think we're just starting to see the fruits of our labors."

Unfortunately, the effect of the recent budget cuts on students performance is unknown. As a result of the staff reductions and reshuffling, over half the teachers at the middle school will have their schedules rearranged. This means teachers will have to adjust to new curriculums, which could mean some fresh ideas, but will also mean some time will be needed to fine tune their approach.

Also, some of the support systems to provide additional support to students will be reduced or altered.

For instance, the school will lose its separate quarterly reading class for seventh graders. Still, Gillman is encouraged that this year's seventh graders will have benefited from a longer exposure to the accelerated reading program, which should help them when it's time for them to take the test. "We should continue to shoot higher," she said of the school's scores. "I'm not content to stop in the 80s. We need to reach the 90s."

Of the high school students who still need to pass the test for graduation, 43 percent passed the reading test this time and 52 percent passed the math. It's pretty typical of the retesting to have another half clear the bar, said Clausen.

A breakdown of the students who have yet to pass either the reading or math is at follows:
Students Needing to Pass
Grade - Reading - Math
8th - 19 - 20
9th - 9 - 12
10th - 6 - 4
11th - 7 - 3
12th - 1 - 1

The high school lost its four hours of remedial math instruction in the recent school cuts. The middle school kept its hour of remedial math instruction but likely will have a staffing change. Gillman credits the current remedial instructor, Melinda Zachman, with improving a number of students' test scores.

The 68-point multiple choice math exam tests the ability of students in problem solving, number sense, measurement, and estimation. The reading test is a 40-point multiple choice exam that focuses on reading comprehension.

Both tests are now ranked on a scale with a score of 600 (roughly the equivalent to 75 percent) needed for a passing score. In reading, 82 students passed, and in math 81. Another eight students were within ten points of passing, and another 12 within 50. The school needs to focus on helping the dozen students who weren't within 50 points on a respective test, according to Clausen.

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