Students fail to meet Maryland proficiency standards, but improvement still being made

July 02, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Proficiency goals through 2014.
By Chad Trovinger

When the 2010-11 school year began at Western Heights Middle School, many students were years behind their grade level in reading, including five seventh- and eighth-graders who couldn't read sentences, said Stephen Tarason, who was the school's principal last year.

Then, there were students who frequently didn't show up for school, so school officials gave them alarm clocks, or they or student personnel workers went to the students' homes to get them, Tarason said.

Once the students got to school, they put in serious effort, and by the end of the school year, those five seventh- and eighth-graders who couldn't read sentences were reading at least at a second- or third-grade level, he said.

So Tarason was disappointed when he learned recently that Western Heights failed, yet again, to meet state proficiency standards in reading and math from assessment tests taken last school year.

The students know they've grown academically and the teachers know they worked hard to help students, Tarason said. There is pride in the gains that were made last year, he said.

"When we watched them take the tests, they put their all into it," Tarason said.

Some students enjoyed a Web-based learning program so much they asked if they could go to the library to play the educational games and activities rather than to the cafeteria at lunchtime, Tarason said.

Students set their assessment test goals, sharing them with their parents during a February day in which about 300 parents visited the school, Tarason said. Students sat with their parents and went over the previous year's assessment results, reviewed examples of test questions and set goals for the March assessment tests.

Seventh-graders reading at a third- or fourth-grade level weren't expected to be able to read at the seventh-grade level by the end of the school year, Tarason said. They had set realistic goals, such as improving their reading by more than a grade level.

A moving target

Western Heights did make improvements on the reading and math assessment tests, but it didn't reach the proficiency standards set by the state. Those standards inch up every year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"In general, the school is continuing to improve. The problem is that the bar keeps raising every year. So when you're behind, it makes it more difficult to (reach) the bar," said Dave Reeder, who served as director of secondary education for Washington County Public Schools during the last school year.

Last year's Maryland School Assessment results showed that all but six — 26 of Washington County's 32 public elementary and middle schools — met proficiency standards in 2010.

According to the 2010 results, three elementary schools — Bester, Williamsport and Winter Street — and three middle schools — Northern, Springfield and Western Heights — did not meet proficiency standards that year.

The goal for each school, and various subgroup populations at the schools, is to reach 100 percent proficiency for the 2013-14 school year. That means every student who takes the tests would have to score at or above the proficiency level and have been in the school for a certain period of time.

Of the 17 county schools that didn't meet at least one proficiency standard in the past school year, Western Heights is in the most precarious position because it also failed to meet proficiency standards in 2007 and 2008. The school, in Hagerstown's West End, is considered to be a "developing comprehensive school in improvement" and is in its third year of "school improvement," said Jeremy Jakoby, supervisor of testing and accountability.

If Western Heights fails to meet proficiency standards in the coming school year, school system officials will need to plan to restructure the school for the 2012-13 school year, said Bill Reinhard, state education department spokesman.

That usually involves a combination of putting new leadership in place and working with new staff, Reinhard said.

Another option would be to close the school, and reopen it as a charter school run independently from the school system with its own board, state education spokeswoman Maureen Moran said.

The State Board of Education would need to approve any restructuring plan.

An 'alert school'

Western Heights went through a restructuring during the 2006-07 school year after the school failed to meet proficiency standards and became an "alert school." Teachers reapplied for their jobs and stayed after school for additional training.

The school's teachers have received extra pay— a $5,000 annual stipend — for that extra time since the 2006-07 school year, Assistant Superintendent Donna Hanlin said. That extra pay for every teacher will cease with the new school year, she said.

Western Heights will join a pilot evaluation program that would provide financial incentives of at least $7,000 — hypothetically — to a teacher deemed to be highly effective during the first year of the pilot program.

After the middle school went through that restructuring, it had a group of young teachers who had a learning curve of their own when it came to learning curriculum and instruction strategies, Hanlin and Reeder said.

The staffing situation at the school stabilized, something Hanlin thinks contributed to the gains students exhibited on assessment tests. The school is getting a new principal this school year, but that decision was made before assessment test results were released, Hanlin said.

Getting help

Students aren't the only ones getting extra assistance at Western Heights.

The teacher training has focused on instructional techniques and making sure teachers were teaching the right things, so the curriculum was covered, Reeder said.

"We want to capture the kids' hearts, but we want to capture their interests and make sure they're not gazing off into space and thinking of other things," Reeder said.

That meant finding ways to break up 90-minute classes so students weren't just sitting there, Reeder said. Teachers used hands-on, active lessons and took advantage of technology in the classrooms.

A Web-based program called Study Island allowed students to learn through games and activities both at school and at home, Tarason said.

The school employed other math and reading intervention programs, instructional assistants helped targeted students during class time, and remedial reading and math classes were provided for small groups of students to give them individual attention, Tarason said.

Students occasionally were taken out of clubs or elective classes, such as art or physical education, so they could get additional help with lessons. Some 30 to 40 children often attended an after-school program designed to provide additional assistance, Tarason said.

The week before assessment tests, the school's student government association held an "MSA pep assembly," Tarason said. After the tests, about 300 parents attended student-led conferences in which the youths explained what they had accomplished in classes.

Attendance and mobility, the high rate of students moving into and out of the school during the school year, make it challenging for the school to improve its assessment rating, Tarason said.

Staying involved

In addition to those challenges, parent Lori Hall said few parents show up to PTA meetings and events.

"These are the years when you need to stay most involved," said Hall, who just became Western Heights' PTA president.

Hall said students were responding to changes made at the school in recent years.

"I really, honestly, don't know what else they could do," Hall said.

"(There are) so many people at that school that genuinely care about the students. ... I really think we need to get more parents involved and active in their kids' lives," Hall said.

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