As Missoula County Public Schools moves forward, graduating more students than ever and closing in on its 100 percent graduation target, test scores prove the district is not a diploma mill, officials say.
Should critics think MCPS has adopted a less rigorous curriculum to achieve a higher graduation rate, the test scores tell a different story, said Mark Thane, MCPS executive director of Region 1.
“MCPS students are exceeding state and national averages, fairly significantly,” Thane said last week while studying the data and assembling it into readable charts.
There are many tests that assess student achievement – a key one of which is the ACT, a national college entrance exam.
While the ACT results show there’s still room for improvement, they also show MCPS students are more knowledgeable than their peers across the state and nation.
In the college English composition tests, for example, 82 percent of MCPS test takers score above the benchmark, which is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher in a credit-bearing college class, or a 75 percent chance of earning a C.
Statewide, Montana students score a 74 percent, and nationally the number is 67 percent.
The same results echo in the college algebra, college social sciences and college biology subject-area tests. In those tests, MCPS outperforms and far exceeds the state and national scores. For a complete look at the data, go to this story on Missoulian.com.
The same outcomes hold true in other assessments, such as the state’s Criterion Reference Test, which measures proficiency on state and national standards.
While the news is welcome to school administrators and parents, the statistics beg yet another question: Why are MCPS students doing so well, and what is driving the steady improvement of test scores over the past five years?
“We have had significant work done in the district, something we call ‘Response to Intervention,’ ” Thane explained. “Teachers must ask themselves what can I do differently so that kids can achieve a certain level of mastery?”
It used to be common that when teachers had a student who wasn’t succeeding in their class, that student would be sent down the hall for remediation.
“What we are saying and doing now is that students don’t have to leave the classroom for academic reinforcement or reteaching,” Thane said. “The student will get additional learning opportunities in the classroom to which they have been assigned.”
This way of flexible and responsive teaching, in some ways, harkens back to one-room frontier schools, where students at all levels of learning were taught the same material and then given time to learn it and master it at their own pace in smaller groupings and independently; all the while, the classroom stayed intact.
“We are more successful with this on the elementary side of schooling with grouping and regrouping within the classroom,” Thane said. “And we are better at it right now with reading than at math, but this system has paid dividends for us.”
Student achievement is improving because of these kind of changes, and also because not only is the teaching high quality, there are high expectations for students to learn to the best of their ability, Thane said.
The best part is that students are well aware of those expectations and are working to achieve those goals. The test data prove that, Thane said.
“We are proud of our five-year trend and of the achievement of our students, and we will continue to encourage students to achieve,” he said.
As the MCPS district moves forward, so too do its strategies to continue the successful academic trajectory.
The two concepts of “summative” and “formative” assessment are the current buzzwords and priorities.
Using two different tests – Measures of Academic Progress and Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literary Skills – teachers and schools will test students up to six times throughout the year at some grade levels.
The frequent testing will identify areas where students need additional support. If teachers choose, students can be tested every two to three weeks, if some students need to be watched more carefully.
The testing creates a learning environment in which teachers have the creativity to develop their own materials but can also collaborate to achieve established, common goals.
“This is about consistency not conformity,” Thane explained. “We want similar goals and outcomes and achievements, but teachers have license as to how to get that achieved.”
The “formative” part of the teaching agenda is frequent testing, done a bit more informally, and incorporates the use of things like chapter tests in reading.
Meanwhile, MCPS is gearing up to set in motion the federally mandated “Common Core State Standards.”
In 2015, all states will have new assessments, and MCPS will be part of a consortium that has agreed to the “Smarter Balanced Assessment.”
It’s a long-overdue change, Thane said, because as it currently stands, each state writes its own assessments and that leads to vastly different state standards across the nation.
When Common Core assessments gets under way in 2015, all tests will be administered electronically, and the old pencil and paper format will be history.
“It will be a huge historic shift requiring technology enhancements,” Thane said, “and we are working on that shift now.”
At the state level, the Office of Public Instruction will ask the 2013 Montana Legislature for $30 million to spend on classroom technology, said Madalyn Quinlan, OPI chief of staff.
Specifically, the request is for $15 million per year for the upcoming biennium.
“What we are asking for is the hardware, the computers and tablets for classroom use so students can use them for day-to-day learning,”Quinlan said. “The idea is that when it’s time for assessment, they will be ready to take the assessment online.”
Technology is changing the world and the way students are assessed, and Quinlan believes that change is for the better.
“The whole notion of assessment is much more integrated into day-to-day operations of a classroom, so providing data back to teachers and students more quickly than once-a-year tests will be a big improvement,” she said.
After much research, OPI is requesting the $30 million with the goal of providing a minimum of one computer for every three students in Montana.
District taxpayers will likely be asked to help augment the state funding, Thane said, but that amount hasn’t been determined.
“I think this will be a high-profile issue during this session,” Quinlan said, “as this is an important piece in helping students become career ready when they graduate from high school and prepare to be job ready and college ready.”