Idaho schools try to help low achievers

Officials look for safety nets as new curriculums raise the academic bar. ‘Some kids need more,’ says one expert.

broberts@idahostatesman.August 11, 2013 

Kathy Groothuis, a chemistry teacher at Columbia High School in Nampa, participates in a Common Core training program. "One thing I'm more excited about is higher expectations for and from students," she said.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

  • WHAT EXACTLY IS COMMON CORE?

    Common Core is a mutually agreed upon set of standards for what students should learn in public school. It is being adopted in 45 states. Core standards emphasize critical thinking and delving deeply into subject areas. Some states, such as Indiana and Michigan, have backtracked on standards after residents complained, but no state has yet dropped the standards.

  • BILL ROBERTS

    Bill covers education for the Statesman. He is particularily interested in what happens in the classroom and how children learn.

Idaho Core Standards, tougher requirements for what students should learn, could cause a drop in student proficiency on tests and widen the gap between struggling and successful learners.

State education officials say they will put $22 million of state and private money into training teachers to help with student instruction based on the new standards, which go into classrooms this fall. Those standards cover language arts and math, requiring students to learn more deeply and focus on real-world relevance rather than memorize facts and rules.

How will school districts extend their safety nets? They’ll add faculty, use more testing and set up special classes to keep students from falling behind, even as they are expected to reach for a higher bar.

“(Many) kids who live in poverty ... or are underachieving will need additional quality time to catch up,” said Kathleen Budge, a Boise State University associate professor and coordinator of the college’s education leadership program.

“There is just no getting around it. Some kids need more. That is the social justice issue we face.”

New rounds of testing could result in proficiency scores dropping by as much as 30 percent, based on testing done elsewhere in the country, Idaho educators say.

In New York City, for example, a quarter of the students in third through eighth grade passed the English portion of the Common Core exam in the past school year, down from 47 percent in 2012, according to The New York Times. Only 30 percent passed the math exam in 2013, compared to 60 percent in 2012.

It’s unclear exactly how Idaho’s achievement gap will be affected. But the state comes to the standards with a significant difference already in test scores for low-income students and Latino students based on the national exam given to a sample of students in each state.

Scores from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress are the latest year for which Idaho has results. That year showed a 19-point difference in average math scores for low-income Idaho eighth-graders compared to those not economically disadvantaged. Among Latinos, there was a 24-point difference in the average scores for fourth-grade reading compared to white students. The likelihood that those gaps would close if the same students were retested is extremely unlikely, state officials say.

Low-income and Latino students face challenges that can affect how they do on exams. Low-income students often come to school without the same vocabulary strength or reading experiences as children from higher-income families. Many Latinos are struggling to learn English.

MORE TO BE DONE

The Education Trust, an advocacy group dedicated to closing achievement gaps, says Idaho has work to do preparing Latino students for the coming rigorous standards. A study released in July shows that the state is “consistently below the national average in terms of its track records for Latino students,” based on the national assessment, said Daria Hall, Education Trust’s director of K-12 policy.

“We need to really take a laser-like focus and figure out what is going on with Latino students, what particular challenges they are facing in school and how are we going to address those challenges,” Hall said.

What can Idaho do? A number of things, the group says: Make certain Latinos get their fair share of state and local education dollars; insist that the curriculum Latinos get is as challenging as that taught to other students; and be certain they get a good representation of Idaho’s most skilled teachers.

Proficiency tests, which will count in the 2014-2015 school year, are likely to be tougher and to be used to determine how well schools are performing. They’ll also be the exam students have to pass to graduate.

‘A NEW APPROACH’

Caldwell, like many districts, shows a gap among low-income and Latino students in the percentage of those who score in the advanced category of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test.

The district has 6,000 students; 83 percent are low-income and 60 percent are Latino.

In 10th-grade reading, for instance, 34.1 percent of white students were in the advanced category, meaning ahead of grade level, according to 2013 testing based on Idaho’s pre-Common Core standards. Just 16.3 percent of Latino students and 19.4 percent of low-income students were advanced.

Caldwell School District officials say they will go after improving the achievement gap the same way they will work to raise student scores throughout the district.

Teachers won’t be waiting for quarterly grades to assess how students are doing. They’ll be assessed after each unit — such as how well kindergarteners count to 10 and then to 20 — rather than assessed on accumulated skills, said Jodie Mills, Caldwell director of curriculum and instruction.

Students returning to Caldwell schools this fall will take four new assessments to determine how well they write, a reaction to the Idaho Core Standards’ emphasis on writing.

“We are going to have more information as we go along,” Mills said. “This is going to be a new approach.”

Said Tim Rosandick, district superintendent: “The solution isn’t entirely going to be additional support. We have to make sure the core instruction is on target.”

EXTRA SCREENING

Nampa School District, with two-thirds of its students low-income, will do screenings for kids this fall to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

The Idaho Reading Indicator, a 10-minute exam given to K-3, will be expanded through sixth grade, with the option of seventh- and eighth-graders taking the exam in schools that think it necessary. Expanding the exam will cost $28,000 for cash-strapped Nampa schools, but will be paid for with federal money targeted at schools with large numbers of low-income students.

Nampa officials say the Idaho Core Standards and the emphasis on applying learning to the real world might help students do better on statewide exams. They might be able to show what they can do better than regurgitating what teachers have told them.

“It’s going to be easier to close the gap,” predicted Earnie Lewis, Nampa’s administrator of curriculum and instruction.

Some districts are adding staff. Boise School District decided to hire seven new math teachers this fall, at a cost of $336,000, and spread them around their secondary schools to help students struggling with Idaho Core Standards’ demanding math requirements.

But Boise didn’t hire additional teachers for the language arts portion because it felt math needed the additional support, said Stephanie Youngerman, supervisor for art and language arts, who helped develop the math system.

“The change in language arts is just not as dramatic,” she said. “We’ll have to wait and see if that is something we are going to need.”

In Meridian, which says it can’t afford to hire all of the roughly 1,750 teachers the state says it can have, officials are considering combining low-enrollment classes as a way to free up dollars for additional instruction in areas such as math, said Cindy Sisson, curriculum director.

Meridian now has classes in place that lagging students take to get caught up. No one is sure how much more will be needed. But Sission said small classes — such as foreign languages — might end up combined with other classes, or students will use the Idaho Education Network to video-conference with students elsewhere in the district. That could help the district get the most out of its teachers and resources for core subjects.

“(We) may not be able to have five or six levels of a foreign language or music,” Sission said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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