Menahga School works to improve state test scores
By Nick Longworth
After a half decade of inconsistent and borderline subpar test scores on statewide assessments, the Menahga School District is looking for stability in comparison to the statewide average.
They’re looking for an answer.
The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) is a way for a district to measure academic progress among its student body, in accordance to Minnesota state standards and the Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA) act. Three different areas are tested for scoring by grade and set in comparison to these standards.
Reading is tested in grades 3-8 and again in 10th, math is tested in grades 3-8 and again in 11th and science is tested in grades 5 and 8, and once again in high school.
Through 2009-2013 Menahga students in grades 5-8 have had trouble meeting the state average test scores for both reading and math.
Of the five years surveyed:
In math only one year did students meet or exceed the state’s average in 5th grade, twice they did in 6th, once in 7th and three times in 8th grade (although two years met the average but did not exceed it).
In reading, twice students met or exceeded the state’s average in 5th grade, three times in 6th and zero times in both 7th and 8th grade combined (although 8th met, but did not exceed the state’s average twice).
These same tests are again administered in high school in 10th and 11th grade.
The reading test is taken again in 10th grade and Menahga students met or exceeded the state average three out of five times in those same years.
The math test, administered in 11th grade, also met or exceeded standards three out of five times.
So why is it in middle school specifically that these scores drop so significantly?
“When I came to Menahga we were in the tank,” said Superintendent Mary Klamm.
“Middle school is a challenge, because it’s middle school. Think of a first, second or third grader and they’re all excited for school. Then you think about a junior in high school, and they’re starting to think about their future,” Klamm said. “On both ends are fine, but in middle school they could give less. Their focus is on their friends.”
In 2009 the Minnesota’s MCA math tests were changed statewide in order to more accurately reflect the “common core” education principals – a national set of standards intended to better prepare students for college or a career.
In 2013, the reading tests switched over to reflect these common core principals as well.
“Everybody’s scores in the whole state tanked (after the reading switch). The reading is much more in-depth and technical and we’re adjusting to that,” Klamm said.
These adjustments could account for some of the sluggish test scores, but they also may only be isolated incidents that do not reflect the overall statistics shown.
And then there’s also new technology to consider.
Last year was the first full school year in which Menahga implemented a “1-to-1” tablet policy, equipping every student with their own personal electronic device for educational purposes.
These devices are a step into a new world of technology for the district, and also for many schools around the nation as well.
Dubbed as a convenient and all-encompassing resource, they allow students to expand their education even further and at a pace never before seen with a textbook.
“It gives teachers another tool for learning,” Klamm said. “There have always been different tools that kids will want to use as opposed to something adults would rather have them do. The TV, radio, cell phones – we’ve all had them.”
But are these tablets yet another distraction for students? Especially for those who are at a very formative age and have an important test to take? Klamm doesn’t think so.
“Kids wanted to play games, but that cooled off as the year went on. They now have an (iPad) as a resource to create things, along with other resources. There are different ways that the iPads are being used in classrooms, but it’s not like we thought,” Klamm said, explaining the ongoing use of the tablets in the classroom.
“It can bring wonderful, valuable experiences, but it can also be a pain. It’s really about classroom management,” she added. “For the teacher in the classroom, things never stay the same. You have to adjust your classroom management for this new tool that you have. In any business or industry, you have to adjust all the time. Things change, technology changes. Teachers over the years have had so many things come at them, and they are adjusting.”
Presented with the MCA score statistics this way, Klamm said that the district has made progress in the right direction over this same tenure, which is true.
However, a sizeable gap still remains.
“The big thing is in time our scores have improved every single year and what we want to do is continuously improve,” Klamm said. “We are not happy, and we’ve been working really hard. Only now have 7th and 8th grade become consistent.”
Klamm alluded to consistency as being teacher turnover, which she says has had an effect on some score results.
“One of the things our teachers are doing now is further studying of the common core standards, and what they entail,” Klamm said.
“Before the common core standards of reading in the high school, it was difficult for teachers to understand the importance of reading in their curriculum area. But now in the common core they have the standards right within the content area. I give teachers in general a lot of credit for their changes in attitude towards what has to happen; they really do make a difference.”
Klamm also noted that students who are struggling with reading are encouraged to enroll in an extracurricular group called “Reading 180” offered in the high school by Principal Dan Stifter. She describes the program as an “intervention program to help kids with comprehension and other problem areas.”
No such program is available at the moment for math.