District makes ‘phenomenal’ strides

by Jim Boyle

Elk River Area School District administrators are hailing recently released state test results as “phenomenal” and a testimony that the processes in place to advance student learning in the district are working.

District 728, the eighth largest district in the state, outpaced the state average by more than 8 percent in math and 7 percent in reading on tests given to students in third through 8th grade.

The largest differences were observed in seventh and eighth grade, both of which scored more than 10 percent higher than the state average.

That’s especially good news considering scores across the state improved.

For instance, proficiency in math statewide increased from 56 percent last year to nearly 62 percent this year. Elk River proficiency came in at 69 percent.

As for reading, the statewide average was 75 percent. Elk River came in at 82 percent.

“These results, district to state and for our five-year trends, are astonishing,” said Superintendent Mark Bezek. “In my more than 32 years as an educator, I have never seen across the board increases, and in particular singular demographics, as these results show; this only happened because of the processes our district put in place, the collaboration we enjoy and the total commitment our educators, School Board and administrators have for all learners in ISD 728.”

State education officials say students’ math and reading scores are a good indication that students are making strides.

“The upward trends we’re seeing show that we are on the right path to prepare our students for success,” Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius stated in a press release.

Some educators, however, were crediting the ability to take the tests three times last year as opposed to just once.

Elk River administrators say they are certain their gains are due primarily to efforts of a strong teaching and learning team and District 728 educators’ use of data to determine what works and what does not in their classrooms.

Joe Stangler, the district’s director of research and assessment, said Elk River educators are gathering, analyzing, sharing and responding to student data. What’s more is local educators have gone beyond analyzing data at building level and are now looking at data on a student by student basis.

Bezek echoes Stangler’s statements.

“It’s the PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) and RtI (Response to Intervention),” Bezek said. “Most districts are not using these (systems).”

Casey Mahon, the school district’s manager of communications, shared information from a presentation last year by author and nationally known presenter Mike Mattos, who encouraged administrators and teachers to roll PLCs and RtI together to form an even more powerful approach.

PLCs are said to promote dialogue about student needs. This  coupled with the data derived from the assessments and interventions within the framework of Response to Intervention (RtI) ensure dialogue is focused on each student’s individual learning needs.

District 728 schools have started the process, and district leadership is providing the resources and support required to coordinate these two initiatives with the Seven Correlates of Effective Schools in our continued effort to see that ALL students in ISD 728 succeed.

Jana Hennen-Burr, the assistant superintendent of educational services, said Elk River students also had the benefit of a new reading curriculum in 2011, and next year there will be a new, nationally recognized math curriculum implemented.

“Just think what our results will be in a year from now,” she stated. “The hard work, dedication and perseverance of our teaching staff must be applauded.

“They continue to look at data and make informed decisions on how to improve their teaching so they can better improve student achievement.”

Between 2010 and 2012, the Elk River Area School District improved its rank in math and reading as well in closing the achievement gap. Compared to the top 50 Minnesota school districts in enrollment, District 728 moved up to 15th place from 27th in math and to 16th place from 28th in reading.

“This movement is especially impressive since all districts are trying to improve their proficiency rates, Stangler said. “Given that our resources are less than that of most all other districts, this is a testament to the dedication and hard work of all our staff, students and parents.”

White, non-Hispanic students are in step with state averages on reading (82 percent) and ahead by two percentage points in math at 70 percent compared to 68 percent for the state.

The Elk River Area School District has a smaller achievement gap than the state does when it comes to students of color. For instance, 75 percent of black students in the Elk River Area School District are proficient compared to 53 percent in the state on reading tests. As for math, 48 percent of District 728 black students are proficient compared to 33 percent in the state.

The school district’s gains showed in comparisons with other large districts. District 728 administrators like what they see from Elk River students compared to their peers in other large districts.

The district has gone from a middle of the pack school district to one of those in the upper echelon, Stangler said.

Of the 10 largest districts in the state, District 728 ranks second in math — up from sixth in 2010.

Of the 10 largest districts in the state, District 728 ranks fourth — up from fifth.

MCAs are one measuring stick used to evaluate student performance, but they don’t carry the weight they once did. Under the No Child Left Behind law, math and reading proficiency measured by the MCAs determined which schools were considered not to be making Adequate Yearly Progress and forced to improve. Minnesota was freed from the federal law in February and rolled out a new accountability system for schools this spring. Those results will be out later this month.