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Paynesville Press - August 8, 2001

Elementary reading scores improve

By Michael Jacobson

Paynesville's third and fifth graders recorded substantial improvement in their reading scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) tests.

The MCA exams are taken by third and fifth graders across the state in March. The tests are intended for schools to mark the progress of their students and to identify gaps in the curriculum. The MCA results were released last week.

The scores are judged in four categories. According to the Department of Children, Families, and Learning, Level I indicates students have gaps in their knowledge. Level II indicates partial knowledge and skills. Level III indicates work above the grade level. And Level IV indicates superior performance.

The third and fifth graders at Paynesville Area Elementary School (PAES) tested above state averages, except in some areas of high achievement. The elementary school has fewer Level I and II students than the state average, and more Level III students than normal.

Chart of tests results.

"I was very happy when I saw these scores because they were very good," said elementary principal Todd Burlingame.

But the high end proved elusive. Only in third grade reading did the school have 16 percent of the students record superior performances, matching the state average.

Unlike the basic skills tests in eighth grade, which students must pass to graduate, these tests are meant for internal use. The state provides a breakdown of how the students scored on different types of problems, and the staff will use the results to examine the curriculum when they return to work this fall, said Burlingame. "We can find what our strengths and weaknesses are," he explained, "and we can make a plan to address it." The third grade scores reflect K-3 curriculum, and the fifth grade scores reflect the fourth and fifth grades, said Burlingame.

Students also get individual records of their test scores, which should have been mailed last week. If anyone has questions about the results, they can call the elementary office at 320-243-3725.

Teachers can use these results next year to address areas of need for each child.

Comparing the district's scores year by year isn't the most valuable way, according to Burlingame, who notes that improvements or declines may just be the result of the relative strength of the class being tested.

The biggest value of the tests will be to compare the MCA results of a class in third grade to their results in fifth grade. By this standard, the school's best scores were in fifth grade reading. Two years ago, 14 percent of the class tested in Level I (gaps in knowledge). This year, the percentage in Level I had been halved, down to seven percent.

Meanwhile, the students at their grade level (Level III) rose by ten percent. And, perhaps most significantly, the percentage testing at a superior level (Level IV) nearly quadrupled, rising from four percent in 1998-99 to 19 percent in 2000-01.

(Still, though, this was five percentage points below the state average for high achievement in fifth grade reading. Paynesville's fifth graders had 15 percent more than the state average in Level III for reading.)

In comparison to reading, the fifth grade math scores showed a one percentage point drop in Level I, a one percentage point gain in Level II, a three point gain in Level III, and a four point gain in Level IV.

Burlingame attributes the strong reading scores to the accelerated reading program at PAES. This program tests students' reading ability and identifies books in the library at their skill level. Students are given a goal to achieve and must read books and pass comprehension quizzes to gain points.

"It's basically at their own level and their own pace, and the teachers set the goal and help them attain it," said Burlingame.

The program gives kids an incentive to read, and a majority respond to it, he added. On the last day of school in June, the fifth graders got tosses at a dunking booth (staffed by Burlingame, D.A.R.E. officer Tim Kantos, and fifth grade teacher Rick Houske) based on their accelerated reading points.

The fifth graders had used accelerated reading for three years before taking the MCA exams in March. The district now uses the program for students in third through eighth grades. Last year, the elementary school introduced its top second grade readers to accelerated reading as an enrichment exercise.

Burlingame predicted the school's reading scores would continue to climb as a result of the program.

The elementary school also does a Stop, Drop, and Read program where once a day students stop what they are doing and read for 15 minutes throughout February to promote reading.

Burlingame attributes the lack of high end scores in math locally to the absence of enrichment programs in math. There is an accelerated math program, but it involves repetitive worksheets and costs more to start because of extra computer hardware that is needed.

Another option, according to Burlingame, is out-of-school activities like Odyssey of the Mind teams.

"We've got some work to do," he said.

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