School news

Note: This is the third in a series of articles regarding the USD 435 District Learning Update presented to Abilene Board of Education members during the Nov. 11 meeting.

 When it comes to state assessments and ACT scores, Abilene students are measuring consistently above the state average in reading, but the school district still has some concerns when it comes to math.

“Our numbers are pretty good and the state trend is down slightly,” Abilene Assistant Superintendent Chris Cooper told school board members. “But our data would say we still need to do some work on math.”

Students in grades three through eight and 10 are assessed in English, language arts and math and fifth, eighth and 11th graders are tested in science.

Scores are divided into four levels: Level 1 is on track, level 2 is grade level, levels 3 and 4 are considered on track for college and career.

At elementary levels, math scores are good with Abilene students coming in above the state average. In seventh grade, Abilene students are running at or around the state average, although that number fluctuates year to year.

Tenth grade math scores are a concern according to the state assessment, which shows 57 percent of students in 2019 were ready in math, compared to 60 percent statewide. However, Cooper noted state numbers are “up and down.” Abilene 10th graders who took the test in 2018 were at 66 percent — the same as the state average.

“One of the issues we have — not only in Abilene, but across the state — kids have no stake in this. We cannot grade it; we cannot reward them for doing well. We cannot incentive it in any way. We have to say ‘do your best’,” Cooper said. “It’s a very low stakes test for kids. It has been high stakes for schools, but not so much anymore.”

When “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) was the main law for general education, state assessments were the main means of measuring student learning.

“It was ‘all important,’ all eggs in one basket, a totally different assessment,” Cooper explained. “After that (NCLB) went away, the state (department of education) kind of said ‘don’t focus on just the state assessment’ so the trend is down a little bit. Ours is not as much as some others.

“This is an assessment we need to look at and take seriously, but then again, it’s just one measure,” he added.

Tested for things not yet learned

Cooper said one of his concerns with the state math assessment is that the sophomores being tested have not yet been taught the concepts they are being tested on.

“We used to have this thing called ‘opportunity to learn’ when we would test the kids after they’ve been taught the material, but that went away with the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind,” Cooper said. “Now we test all tenth graders whether they know the math or not — but that may be changing.”

Luckily, Abilene students who take algebra in eighth grade, geometry as a freshmen and then algebra II fare better not only on the state assessment but on the ACT, the standardized test primarily used for college admission.

“They do quite well if they’ve taken the advanced courses,” Cooper said.

One answer is to begin accelerating more students in math at the sixth grade level. Cooper said the district is making MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) changes with teachers improving what’s going on in the classroom.

Curriculum & MTSS impact positive

A couple years ago, Abilene schools implemented MTSS strategies in math.

MTSS is a system to help prevent students from “falling through the cracks” by using assessments and interventions to make sure students understand basic learning concepts so there are no missing pieces.

Reading was the first MTSS area implemented, followed by math and behavior.

“For these scores to change, we have to start early, accelerating kids,” Cooper said. “I’m encouraged because of the changes at K-5.”

Abilene Middle School Principal Jenna Delay said teachers are impressed by the “sheer number of strategies our sixth graders came in with from the math curriculum,” Delay said. “If you ask them: Here’s a division problem with multiple digits, give four different ways to approach it, they can all tell you four different ways to approach it and get it right.”

Delay said a middle school instructor has been visiting McKinley and Eisenhower elementaries to observe strategies the students are being taught and middle school staff are learning those “so we can continue that curriculum all the way through.”

“That’s been very beneficial. We’re going to create an accelerated class in the second semester of sixth grade. We don’t know the students very well before that, so we’ll have a semester to tell who should be accelerated and should improve their ability to be successful when they get to tenth grade,” Delay said.

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