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Willmar School Board discusses report on testing

PENNOCK -- Frustrations with the way the state labels school districts bubbled to the surface when the Willmar School Board discussed scores on last spring's standardized tests.

Danith Clausen, director of curriculum and instruction, presented the district's annual report on curriculum and student achievement when the board met Monday at the Pennock Community Center.

The district's students have done well in the testing the district uses each year to measure growth from fall to spring. Even students who do not quite meet their achievement goals by spring do show improvement from the beginning to the end of the school year, Clausen said.

However, the district has not fared as well in the tests the state uses to judge districts, called the MCA-IIs.

Willmar, along with about half of Minnesota's school districts, has been labeled as not making adequate yearly progress on the state's tests. The expectations for school districts increase each year and will continue to increase until the 2013-2014 school year, when 100 percent of students will be expected to pass the tests at their grade level.

School officials have said for some time that the goals of the No Child Left Behind federal education law are laudable but unrealistic.

Math scores in general appear to be better than reading scores in Willmar, but the district has seen some decline in the percentage of students who meet state proficiency goals, Clausen said.

Clausen said she and the faculty did a thorough review of the math curriculum to see how it relates to state standards -- the list of concepts children should learn at each grade level.

For the most part, the curriculum the district uses taught students the concepts the state wants them to learn, she said, but they also found a few differences between the two.

However, the MCA-II tests reflect the state's current math standards, and a new set of standards will be implemented soon.

"We have put so much into reading," Clausen said, "but we are not making the progress that we want to make."

She will be looking at the language arts curriculum to see if some adjustments can be made, she said. However, since the state could adjust its standards in the future, such reviews will be an ongoing process.

In addition, school officials are not allowed to look at the tests to gauge what types of knowledge the state is seeking, and the review cycle for state standards does not match the curriculum review cycle used by the district.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard reminded board members that a new set of tests, the MCA-IIIs, will be unveiled in another year, which makes preparation even more difficult. The district will be implementing new state standards while giving students tests based on the old standards.

Board Chairman Mike Carlson called the situation "a perfect storm for failure."

The test results can be used as tools to gauge how well students are learning, Clausen said, but they shouldn't be the only measurements used. The emphasis on test scores can be disheartening for faculty members who work hard to reach out to every child, she said.

"At the end of the day, we have to look back and say we do the best we can for these kids," she said.