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Willmar, Minn., students beat state, national averages in ACT scores

Brooke Piepenburg, from left, Jonathan Onnen and Danny Tusa work on a calculus problem Friday during an Advanced Placement class at Willmar Senior High School. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 2
Tyler Kingery fires a projectile Friday during a class experiment in his Advanced Placement physics class at the Willmar Senior High School. If district voters reject renewal of the operating levy in the Nov. 8 election, these are the types of courses that may be difficult to continue. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 2

WILLMAR -- They're calling it the Grand Slam at Willmar Senior High.

For the first time since the 9-12 high school opened in 1994, Willmar students have beaten state and national averages in their ACT scores.

It's not fair to call it a trend, since this is the first year with scores this high, said Principal Rob Anderson, but "we'd love for this to become a pattern."

Anderson retired last summer but was persuaded to return for one more year while the district searches for his successor. Now, he's glad he came back. "It was fun to return and get this kind of a result," he said as he flashed a beaming smile.

Willmar students had the best English, math, science and reading scores in school history along with the highest composite score.

The school's average composite score was 23.2, compared to a state average of 22.9 and a national average of 21.1. Averages by subject area were 22.6 in English, 23.6 in math, 23.1 in science and 23.1 in reading. All those scores exceeded Minnesota's averages, which were the highest in the nation.

Willmar tested 170 students last year, about 60 percent of last year's seniors, he said. That's about 20 more than tested in each of the preceding two years.

Anderson said he didn't have demographic information about those who took the test, but he knows the number of minority students taking the test has been rising, and he expects that to continue.

Anderson said most of the credit for the high scores goes to students who are "reaching out and taking advantage" of what the school has to offer. It also goes to the teaching staff and the partnership between the two groups.

The staff is currently in the third year of a three-year plan to increase the percentage of students who complete the courses they take, he said.

Last year, students completed 95 percent of the courses they attempted. Anderson said he believes increasing the pass rate helps decrease dropouts and increase the graduate rate. The graduation rate has been increasing in recent years, too.

Each department has adopted three success strategies and put forth a deliberate effort to use those strategies in all classes.

Examples of the strategies include sustained silent reading in language arts classes, teaching effective note-taking strategies or introducing new vocabulary words at the beginning of a new unit.

The departments regularly meet to discuss what's working and what's not, he said, and the staff also shares ideas between departments.

The 95 percent rate is higher than it was a couple years ago and another sign of the effort of staff and students, he said.

"There's no standardized tests here," he said. "It's just our kids with our teachers, working at being successful."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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