Reading Up, Math Down

Julia Randall Elementary student test scores underscore challenges for district

Despite the low state grade, the AIMS passing rate for JRE students in 2011 remained above the state average in reading in every grade, but below the state average for math in fifth and fourth grade.

Despite the low state grade, the AIMS passing rate for JRE students in 2011 remained above the state average in reading in every grade, but below the state average for math in fifth and fourth grade. |

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Work out this equation: Julia Randall Elementary (JRE) students’ math scores drop while reading scores improve compared to national standards.

The message could be, whatever they’re doing in reading — try it in math.

But in the meantime, the school got a “C” on the latest state report card, to the frustration of administrators.

That state grade mostly reflects the share of students passing the state’s Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test of basic skills, with the performance of the lowest 25 percent of students double weighted.

Despite the low state grade, the AIMS passing rate for JRE students in 2011 remained above the state average in reading in every grade, but below the state average for math in fifth and fourth grade. JRE students had a math test passing rate just above the state average.

But the nationally benchmarked Stanford 10 brought more sobering news to the elementary school, which now has all the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in the district after the closure of Frontier Elementary forced a shuffling of the grades.

In Stanford 10 math scores between 2010 and 2011, the JRE students’ percentile ranking compared to students nationwide dropped in most grades. Fifth-graders went from the 59th percentile to the 50th. Fourth-graders went from the 61st percentile to the 56th. And third-graders took a huge dive — from the 68th percentile to the 50th percentile.

That represents declines of between 5 and 27 percent compared to students nationally.

On the other hand, when it comes to reading, fifth-graders made huge gains — rising from the 50th percentile in 2010 to the 64th percentile n 2012. Fourth-graders remained at about the 56th percentile and third-graders dropped from the 53rd percentile to the 48th.

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In Stanford 10 math scores between 2010 and 2011, the JRE students’ percentile ranking compared to students nationwide dropped in most grades.

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Trends by Grade

That represented a range that went from a 9 percent decline in third grade to a 28 percent increase in fifth grade.

“Districtwide we have a need to address math,” said Barbara Fitzgerald, director of special services at the Payson Virtual Academy, “but it takes a while to catch up.”

Several years ago, Fitzgerald said the district decided to focus on reading, even before State Superintendent of Education John Huppenthal introduced his “Move On When Reading” approach. The new rules will require schools to hold back third-graders whose reading scores fall “far below” grade level.

When it comes to reading, JRE teachers have focused on teaching children to not only sound out the words, but understand the meaning of the vocabulary.

“When I’m struggling with fluency, I have to put energy into decoding every word to understand the meaning of a passage,” Fitzgerald said to describe what students struggle with before they participate in the reading program.

In other words, it is not enough to have students sound out a word, they need to comprehend the meaning of that word in order to understand the point of the passage.

If students struggle to translate words, they lose the big picture meaning.

The Response to Intervention (RTI) approach has made a difference, said Fitzgerald. Students read, dissect, comprehend, then prove they understand the passage they have read with testing. The Stanford 10 test scores prove the strategy has worked.

Now, Payson schools will implement the same strategy with math.

Many math problems are word problems. If students understand what they read, and apply critical thinking, Fitzgerald and other administrators believe math scores will improve, but that will take time.

Yet both Fitzgerald and JRE Principal Rob Varner disagree with judging a school’s success based mostly on standardized testing.

“It’s an artificial setting,” said Fitzgerald. “You’re given a booklet of questions, no talking and no questions allowed and you have to sit for three hours.”

“Kids have to be motivated to take the test,” said Varner. “You hope the kids have been fed and had enough sleep — and what’s the incentive for doing well?”

This year, the Arizona Department of Education bestowed the letter grade of “C” on JRE. That score mostly stems from passing rates for the state’s AIMS test. The progress made by the bottom 25 percent of students actually counts twice in the ratings.

However, the rankings don’t include many elements of school quality and performance that can’t be measured by student performance on a standardized test.

Varner finds that vexing.

“Here’s what’s frustrating,” he said, “If we all knew the rules and how to play the game, we could address what needs to be done to help students.”

Attempting to understand the algorithms and calculations that went into assigning the school a letter grade not only confuses parents, but administrators as well. District administrators note that individual schools’ grades bounced around unpredictably as the state department of education struggled to refine its calculations. Varner wishes the information the Department of Education passed on helped to make his and his staff’s job easier, not more muddled.

“It gets to the point where you say, ‘Let’s go back to the classroom and teach,’” he said.

Varner said his students’ scores fall within the margin of error, which means some of the shifts might just represent statistical flukes — not real trends.

Take a look at the reading and math AIMS scores.

In reading, JRE students’ AIMS passing rate in 2011 scored between 5 and 16 percent above the state average, depending on the grade.

However, in math, JRE students had mixed results.

The math AIMS passing rate for the fifth-graders fell 12 percent below the state average.

However, the passing rate for the fourth-graders by contrast had a passing rate starting 22 percent above the state average in math.

The school’s third-graders had a passing rate about 3 percent above the state average.

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