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Area districts' scores similar to statewide

Like those in the rest of the state, area school districts saw the performance of their juniors falter in standardized math tests this spring. Results released this week indicate that a majority of the juniors either did not meet or only partiall...

Like those in the rest of the state, area school districts saw the performance of their juniors falter in standardized math tests this spring.

Results released this week indicate that a majority of the juniors either did not meet or only partially met state standards in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests.

The tests, called MCA-II because the tests are in their second version, are given to students in grades 3-8 in reading and math, in 10th grade in reading and in 11th grade in math. The tests are required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The math test for juniors showed low scores last year, too.

The scores have been attributed, in part, to the reaction of teenaged students when they know a test score won't affect their grades.

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That will change next year, when the state's math graduation requirement is embedded in the MCA-II test for juniors.

"Next year is the year that I expect to get a true read of that junior math test," said Benson Superintendent Lee Westrum. When it's a high-stakes test, "I think you get a more solid effort," he said.

While this year's scores in Benson were not as low in some area school districts, Westrum said, "I wish it was higher; it's not good."

Litchfield Superintendent Bill Wold agreed. "They weren't very good throughout the state, and they weren't very good for us," he said.

In each area school district, a majority of juniors did not display proficiency. The percentage that failed to meet standards or partially met standards ranged from 57.5 percent in Montevideo to 85.7 percent in Yellow Medicine East. Many area districts had percentages in the mid-70s, including Litchfield and Benson. The statewide percentage was 65.6.

By contrast, 10th-grade reading scores were nearly a reverse. Students in area school districts demonstrated proficiency in reading at rates that were more than 50 percent in all cases and as high as 80 percent in several districts.

In addition to the high-stakes nature of future math testing, teachers have learned more about the exam and will be "teaching to the test" next year, Wold said.

It's what schools have done with the writing and reading tests that are part of graduation requirements.

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"The concepts in the test have to be brought forward to the kids, so they can succeed," he said.

In the absence of assistance from the state, school districts will be talking to each other and sharing ideas in the coming year, Wold said.

Benson will be making its math curriculum more rigorous, Westrum said. Soon, all students graduating from the school will have taken at least a second-year algebra class.

Most area districts use computer-based Northwest Evaluation Association testing to gauge student growth from fall to spring. Test results are available right away, not several months later, as with the MCA-II. Districts have asked to substitute Northwest Evaluation Association testing for the MCA-II but have not been able to get state approval.

State officials said that test results were higher this year in general. However, it's likely that many more schools will be added to the 729 schools that were on last year's list of schools not making adequate yearly progress.

The test goals for school districts increase each year under No Child Left Behind, eventually leading to 2014, when all schools will be expected to have all students performing at their grade level in reading and math.

Because the goals are tougher to meet each year, a small increase in average test scores won't be enough to keep more schools from being on the list, Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren said earlier this week.

"The principle behind No Child Left Behind is noble and a great goal to shoot for," Westrum said. The problem with No Child Left Behind is that the goal is "simply not realistic," he added.

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Individual school buildings and whole school districts can be added to the list of those not making adequate yearly progress if subgroups of students don't do well on the tests. In a number of area districts, the scores of special education students or students with limited English proficiency have been problematic.

Some schools have had to develop improvement plans to address low scores in some subgroups. They are required to divert Title I funding, which normally pays for remedial help for students struggling in reading and math.

Westrum said he is disappointed in the way the law treats special education students in particular. Schools are required to develop individual education plans for the students, but No Child Left Behind requires them to take standardized tests.

"We evaluate them along with everybody else when all along we've been basing their education on their individual needs," he said. "By nature of their disability, some of them are never going to do very well on a standardized test."

Westrum said he also disagrees with the law's tendency to "label groups as responsible for failure."

Wold said it shouldn't be surprising that schools have found it difficult to prepare special education students to pass tests at their grade level. "Intuitively, why wouldn't you," he asked.

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