Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Hillcrest School moves to the head of the class

Reports highlight school disparities

April 6, 2001


Students at Hillcrest School outperformed their peers in state testing that showed a continuing academic divide among Lawrence's elementary schools.

"We feel very proud of our level of accomplishment," Hillcrest Principal Bob Arevalo said in January. "But it's something that we need to challenge ourselves on every year."

Results released in January by the Kansas Department of Education showed last year's fourth-graders at Hillcrest outperformed students at the 17 other Lawrence elementary schools that took the state's math assessment. The students attained the state's elusive "standard of excellence."

Down the hall, fifth-graders added to Hillcrest's stature by outshining all other elementary schools in the district on the state reading assessment.

Supt. Randy Weseman said the state's reading, writing and math assessments showed many students in Lawrence schools performed at the highest level. That was clearest on the reading tests, in which Pinckney, Quail Run and Deerfield schools all reached the standard of excellence.

Weseman said the testing also illustrated that student achievement at some schools was unacceptably low, especially on writing. No school in the district met the writing standard of excellence.

"It shows we need to look carefully at how we organize schools and what we actually do in them," Weseman said.

Langston Hughes School, 1101 George Williams Way, was opened in August and didn't participate in the 2000 testing.

'Remarkable gap'

Austin Turney, Lawrence school board president, said the academic divide among elementary schools was alarming.

"I think this is a very remarkable gap," Turney said.

The school district distributed to parents annual report cards for each elementary, junior high and high school. The cards contained a snapshot of student performance on state-mandated math, reading and writing assessments administered in spring 2000.

Scores were matched against district and state averages. Fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders took reading and writing tests. Fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders took math exams.

The reports also contained results of two extra local tests, as well as school demographic information.

The state reported school performance in terms of a percentage of each school's students at the advanced, proficient, satisfactory, basic and unsatisfactory levels.

Turney said the most glaring discrepancy among elementary schools was in reading. For example, he said, 72 percent of students at Quail Run School scored at the advanced or proficient levels in reading. One district school, East Heights, had zero percent of students at those upper levels.

"It suggests to me that one way we could consider approaching this is targeting very carefully certain areas, certain groups of students, and then carefully measuring results," he said.

Turney said he was relieved that testing gaps at the junior highs and high schools weren't as severe.

District highlights

Here are some highlights of the testing:

l Reading 11 of 18 elementary schools, the four junior highs and both high schools met or surpassed the state percentage of students finishing in the advanced and proficient categories. The percentage of unsatisfactory readers at Woodlawn, East Heights and Grant schools was at least double the state average.

At all junior highs and high schools, the percentage at the advanced level was higher than the state average.

l Math Seven elementary schools, three junior highs and both high schools matched or exceeded the state average for the percentage of students at advanced and proficient levels. Two elementary schools, Kennedy and East Heights, had more than 40 percent in the unsatisfactory range. One-third of Central Junior High School's students were unsatisfactory. At the high schools, the percentage of advanced students was double the state average.

l Writing The state doesn't produce an average in each category on this exam, given differences in the way districts administer the test. In Lawrence, Wakarusa Valley School topped all elementaries with a percentage in the advanced category twice as high as 13 other district elementaries. Central had three times the percentage of unsatisfactory writers as the other junior highs. Lawrence High School had 12 percent in the unsatisfactory category, while Free State High School had 7 percent.

Lessons learned

In general, state education officials think the latest assessments indicate Kansas public schools ought to focus more on math instruction.

"We have some work to do in adjusting our instruction to assist our students in improving their math performance," said Andy Tompkins, commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education.

But education activists say the public should consider more than scores on three statewide tests when considering the viability of public education.

"A quality school is more than those things that show up on test scores," said Peg Dunlap, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Assn. "It is important to get more information. It's really hard to measure student attitude, student involvement or love of learning with a test score."

Results of the 2000 tests shouldn't be compared with those from previous years, state officials say, because exams were altered to reflect new curriculum guidelines.

Scott Morgan, a Lawrence school board member, said he was struggling to interpret the scores and define acceptable academic accomplishment for the district.

"Clearly," he said, "having a kid in 'unsatisfactory' isn't acceptable. I don't want to become a slave to numbers, but we put so much into these assessments. Is it our goal to have goals of some sort?"

Weseman said setting local benchmarks for state tests would be a worthy undertaking.

"We really need to make a statement about what constitutes success in this district. We need to know when we can celebrate," the superintendent said.

Based on testing in 2000, the district's most glaring example of academic ineffectiveness was East Heights. The school had no students in the advanced categories in reading, writing or math. Only in math did the school have students 5 percent at the proficient level.

"I didn't need a report card to tell me I needed to take strong action at East Heights," Weseman said.

Arevalo, Hillcrest's principal, said improving achievement on standardized tests required a collaborative effort of teachers, parents and students.

"We're all players," he said. "As a staff, we have continuous improvement goals in reading, math and writing. We want assessments to drive instruction. So, we have to keep asking: Why didn't we hit the mark here or there?

"The time parents spend supporting our efforts at home pays off. Of course, the commitment from children their appreciation of learning and challenging themselves is important. The children are the key players in the big picture."

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