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MAS students perform well on tests, but must keep improving

MORRIS - Analyzing data and coming up with a clear-cut message for what it means about students can be a tricky business.

All three administrators in the Morris Area School District - Superintendent Scott Monson, High School Principal Mike Coquyt and Elementary School Principal Brad Korn - cautioned that different tests from different years comparing different groups of students can be hard to summarize into a simple, single-paragraph assessment about how Morris Area students are performing.

But increased accountability in the form of assessment data isn't going away, and state and federal programs require certain black-and-white results to prove that schools are performing well.

In that spirit, our third story about assessments will try to give a snapshot of what testing data shows about Morris area students, with the understanding that all conclusions based on limited samples of data should be taken with some caution.

Adequate Yearly Progress

Each year, students take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs), which are used to assess whether schools and districts are making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program.

There are two pieces of Adequate Yearly Progress and No Child Left Behind that tie directly to student tests: the district has to test 95 percent of eligible students and 100 percent of students must be proficient in the tests by 2013-2014. If a school or district misses either one of those markers, they will not make AYP.

This year, 77.1 percent of Morris Area High School students were proficient in math and 84.3 percent were proficient in reading. At the elementary school, 81.5 percent of students were proficient in math and 89.1 percent were proficient in reading.

All of these percentages are higher than the state average - a goal both Coquyt and Korn said Morris Area Schools strive for each year.

"I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but it's just expected that we do better [than the state average]," said Coquyt. "When we don't, that's concerning."

Korn credited community support for education as at least part of the reason Morris Area students perform well on standardized tests. However, he cautioned, that doesn't mean the district can let up and be content with current success.

"We're going to have to even expect more out of our kids as we move to 100 percent proficiency in 2014," Korn said, noting that students will need to stay engaged over summer vacation and other school breaks.

In 2011, both the elementary school and the district as a whole made AYP. The high school made AYP in every area except for one small subgroup in reading. Monson said the miss is based on a coding error in how data was collected and that the district will be appealing the decision. If the appeal is successful, the high school will also have made AYP this year.

The error is especially frustrating for the district because staff have been working hard over the last two years to improve AYP results after missing in both reading and math in 2009 at the high school and district level.

"Our staff worked really hard, I think, and did a lot of really good things to address where we were not making AYP," said Monson. "We assembled a district improvement team. We wrote a district improvement plan. We reviewed data. We put specific strategies into our district improvement plan. And you know what? It worked. Our kids performed better on the tests. We felt good about that and we hope that the appeal is successful because that would be a big thing."

One strategy implemented last year was to devote administrative staff development time at the high school to teaching reading strategies for all teachers, regardless of subject area, said Coquyt.

This year the focus will be on differentiated instruction: adjusting the content, process or product for different students based on their skill level, said Coquyt. This new focus directly ties to information gathered under a new form of assessments being implemented this year - Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).

Measures of Academic Progress

This year was the first time the district implemented the MAPs, an online, adaptive test developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association. MAP tests will be taken three times per year - October, January and May - and are designed to give more specific feedback about student achievement in different skill areas.

Because NWEA is a national organization, test results are compared to a national average. Because Minnesota students generally perform better than the national average, both Coquyt and Korn expected students to perform well on the first round of MAP testing in October.

And they did. Morris Area first through eighth graders performed about 6.8 points higher than average in math, 4.6 points higher in reading, and 3.9 points higher in language usage. While there were some groups that scored closer to the national average, only one cohort of students scored below the national average (seventh graders scored 0.7 points less than average in reading).

When looked at more closely, Monson said the data shows the district has a wide range of learners that will benefit from an increased emphasis on differentiated instruction.

Korn said looking at the data had also provided some "pleasant surprises, where a student might not be performing on their daily work, but yet you look at an MCA or the MAP and it suggests that, clearly, they have better skills than what they're demonstrating."

Still, the information from the first round of MAP testing is just a single data point, and all three administrators said they're planning to move slowly as they learn more about the data.

"When we get two and even three points of data, hopefully then it will give us a more accurate picture of a student's academic strengths and weaknesses," said Coquyt.