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KMS Elementary celebrates success in Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests

MURDOCK -- Maybe it was those shiny gold magic pencils.

Or, more likely, it had something to do with the programs after school and in the summer.

Perhaps it was a combination of all those things that helped the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg Elementary School in Murdock increase its test scores in the past three years.

Students celebrated their accomplishments on Thursday by trying to drop Principal Jeff Keil into the icy water of a dunk tank.

In the 2005-06 school year, 76 percent of the students in grades 3-6 demonstrated proficiency in math in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, now in their second version.

In the past school year, that percentage went up to 90 percent.

Scores increased in reading, too. Those increases weren't quite as dramatic, because the scores were higher in previous years.

The MCAs are Minnesota's version of standardized testing required by the No Child Left Behind federal education law. School districts are rated, based on how well their children do on the tests. The proficiency goals increase each year, and the law will require schools to have all students testing at their grade level by 2014.

The KMS district's students have also done well recently on Northwest Evaluation Association tests that indicate student growth from fall to spring.

Before he went into the drink on Thursday, Keil explained what administrators and staff had done to help the students bring their scores up.

Math and reading instruction has changed so much over the years, Keil said.

"I believe what we're doing with kids today is way beyond what we as adults experienced," he said. Kindergarteners learn to read, and third-graders are introduced to the basic concepts of algebra, he said.

The district addressed the needs of students with some new programs. From October through April, an after-school program offers extra help two afternoons a week.

There's a summer school program one morning a week for 12 weeks. Stretching the session over the whole summer seems to help students retain their knowledge between school years, Keil said.

"You have to have the right staff," he said, because it requires a summer-long commitment.

Those programs are funded by Targeted Services funding, Keil said. The money is available to school districts affiliated with an alternative learning center program, and it's intended to help schools assist children at risk of falling behind in their classes.

Keil said they also looked to other school districts in the area, to see what was working for them. That included asking what curriculum other schools were using and looking at their intervention programs.

KMS may not have the same challenges of districts with more diverse populations, but it does have challenges of its own, Keil said.

The district has students from ethnic minorities, and "We are considered one of the poorest districts in the area," he said, and the district has a higher-than-average incidence of autism among its special education students.

And then, there's those magic pencils. It's an idea borrowed from the Eden Valley-Watkins School District. Stamped into the side of the round, gold-colored pencils are the words "For the MCA II, a magic pencil just for you."

Keil said the students receive their shiny new pencils on test days. The pencils don't have any special powers, and the kids know that, he said. When they get the pencils, they are told they can use them to take the whole test or just save them "for the hard problems."

The pencils seemed to help "harness student effort," Keil said. "Do you think we'll ever go away from the magic pencil?"