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Paynesville Press - October 2, 2002

State releases results from third and fifth grade MCAs

By Michael Jacobson

Paynesville's third and fifth graders have once again done better in reading on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) tests than mathematics.

Students in third and fifth grades took the tests last winter, and the results were released last week by the Department of Children, Families, and Learning.

MCA results The purpose of the MCA tests is to evaluate curriculum by testing students on all parts of an essential curriculum, said Deb Gillman, who as principal on special assignment is charged with overseeing the curriculum in the Paynesville Area School District. This contrasts with the Basic Skills Tests, first given to eighth graders, which test the minimum competencies that students are expected to know.

The MCA tests are meant for the district to evaluate its curriculum as well as identify how the students are progressing.

The results are broken into five categories by the Department of Children, Families, and Learning. Level I means the students have gaps in knowledge and skills and need immediate supplementary instruction to have a good chance of passing the Basic Skills Tests. Level IIa means the students have partial knowledge and skills and could benefit from extra help.

Level IIb means the students are working successfully at grade-level material and with steady progress should pass the Basic Skills Tests. Level III means students are working above their grade level and are typically in the top 25 percent nationally. And Level IV means students have advanced knowledge and skills, are working well above grade-level material, and are typically in the top 10 percent nationally.

Levels IIa and IIb are new this year. With the MCA tests in their fifth year, the first class of third graders have also taken the Basic Skills Tests in eighth grade. By comparing the results of the two tests, Level II was found to be too broad, according to Gillman, and was divided this way because 80 percent of students in IIa did not pass the Basic Skills Tests the first year while 80 percent in IIb did.

Gillman also warns against using the MCA results to compare schools, since the test scores do not indicate any underlying factors for test performance, like the number of special education students and socio-economic conditions of students.

Results will be mailed to individual students in early November, and parents and guardians should feel free to discuss the results at the parent-teacher conferences on Thurs-day, Nov. 14, and Friday, Nov. 15.

The school district will be using the results to evaluate the curriculum and to identify students for additional help, said Gillman.

Right now, the schedules for the Title I teacher and Title I instructional assistants are being set. The reports also give breakdowns on what type of problems the students fared well on and which ones they struggled with, helping the staff to focus their help.

The school district gets similar breakdowns, which help it evaluate its curriculum, said Gillman. One thing they will do is compare the results from the fifth graders with their results as third graders two years ago.

While the test results indicate that reading skills are near the state averages, the district's math results have lagged somewhat. For example, the state average in math was 72 percent correct for math in both third and fifth grades, while Paynesville students got only 67 percent correct in each grade.

In reading, the state average for fifth graders was 76 percent, which Paynesville students matched. In third grade, the state average for reacing was 74 percent correct, which Paynesville students surpassed, getting 78 percent correct.

One reason for this disparity in results by subject is that some of the subject areas in fifth grade are at the end of the textbook, which has prompted the curriculum to be revised to cover these topics early in the year, said Gillman.

A factor that may be harder to remedy, according to Gillman, is that elementary teachers may be more comfortable with reading, and thus better teachers of that subject. "Traditionally, elementary teachers have a love of reading and literature," she explained. "Typically, lovers of math do not become elementary teachers."

Mathematics has already been identified as an area to address with staff development, added Gillman, but these funds have been frozen for the past 10 months due to the district's budget crunch.

Another factor in the success of reading scores versus math is the district's accelerated reading program. The district has looked at an accelerated math program, but this primarily generates worksheets, said Gillman, and does not address a large problem in math learning: having a positive attitude toward mathematics. The equipment is also expensive, added elementary principal Todd Burlingame.

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