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Schools see positive results as new programs are started

Kelliher Math teacher John Carlson prepares his students for their exam.

Preparing students to take a reading or math exam is not an easy task for teachers and administrators, especially when some districts face consequences for poor test scores.

But two schools in Beltrami County, Kelliher High School and Blackduck High School, showed such improvement in their test scores they were able to make Annual Yearly Progress.

Neither school made AYP in 2008-09.

AYP is a way the Minnesota Department of Education measures school districts, schools and even subgroups of students.

Kelliher made significant strides in math scores last year, which officials attribute to new reading programs and individualized math lessons.

Of the 11th-graders who took the MCA-II math exam last spring, 61.6 percent scored proficient. This was significantly higher than the state average of 48.6 percent and a 2 percent jump from the school's 2008-09 test scores.

Third- through eighth-graders completed the new online MCA-III math test, which was aligned with new math standards. But students in many school districts across the state struggled with the new test. Statewide, math scores dropped approximately 10 percent.

Roughly 56 percent of the students in Kelliher School District who took the MCA-III math test scored proficient. This fell short of the state average of 57.6 percent, but Kelliher had the second highest proficiency percentage of all the schools in Beltrami County.

Math teacher John Carlson, who is also Kelliher School District's assessment coordinator, said students are broken up into groups based on their math skills.

"We've been doing it long enough that the kids don't notice it," he said. "Kids who are in a lower ability group will still come up to you and say, 'I'm really good at math.' And they are."

After looking at test scores from recent years, Carlson said he noticed many of the students who arrive to school in the fall retain what they learned the previous year.

"Our spring-to-fall scores don't have a big dip," Carlson said. "We're very happy with that. I think the No. 1 contributor is the Hope Survey."

The Hope Survey is an online tool school districts use to diagnose whether a school encourages student engagement and belongingness. A series of online surveys asks students about their perception of their school environment. Kelliher has participated in this study for four years.

According to Lutz, Kelliher staff have developed new programs based on results from The Hope Survey to give students more confidence.

Teachers in Kelliher School District are also helping to prepare students for tests by focusing on their reading skills.

More than 66 percent of students in Kelliher School District scored proficient in reading, which is still lower than the state average of 74.6 percent. This is a gap Lutz wants to close.

For the past three years, the district has been adding new reading and math programs to its curriculum, funded in part by Title I dollars.

School districts that have a high enough percentage of its student receiving free- or reduced-priced meals can qualify to receive funding from the state, known as Title I.

Students were introduced to a computerized program called Scholastic Read 180, which helps students in grades 5-8 improve their reading abilities.

"It takes students and turns them around 180 degrees," Lutz said. "It brings students up to speed on vocabulary, spelling and overall comprehension."

In some cases, Lutz added, students can grow three to four years in their reading abilities in one school year.

This year the district started another new program for fifth- and sixth-graders called System 44, which helps students who score below grade level on reading tests.

For those students who meet or exceed the state standards in reading, Kelliher School District also offers students a program called Expert 21, which is designed for kids who show a higher level of reading abilities.

"We focus so much on the middle or low end, but the kids who are already getting A's are not being challenged," Lutz said. "We're finding that based on test scores, those kids who are meeting those standards aren't really developing as much as we'd like to see them growing."

Lutz's goal is to close the reading gap between those who can read and those who struggle. He said helping students with reading can also help them improve math scores.

"A lot of problems with math occur because kids can't read," he said.

Reading certainly proved to be a strongpoint for Blackduck School District. Roughly 82 percent of students in grades 3-7 scored proficient on the reading exam. Nearly 91 percent of sixth-graders scored proficient on the exam.

Lutz said Kelliher School District and its two schools made AYP because it showed growth and improved its student attendance record.