St. Paul schools: A test of strategy

  • Article by: GREGORY A. PATTERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2009 - 11:56 PM

The move to improve test scores in St. Paul schools is getting personal, to the point where individual students are targeted.

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ELIZABETH FLORES � eflores@startribune.com Bethel College students Mary Ellen Bray, left, and Naomi Moravec, helped students Trey Taylor, 8, left, and Rayshon Ivory, 8, with their math at North End Elementary School. The school in St. Paul hopes to help the school district meet its ambitious goal of boosting student performance by 10 percentage points on state tests this year by taking its problem solving analysis down to the individual student. The district has handed North End -- and all of its schools -- specific performance goals calling for North End, for example to make sure three third graders who didn't weren't proficient in math and reading last year will be this year. Teachers and administrators have combed lists of individual students to determine which kids need help and which are most likely to benefit from additional instruction. The teachers union, while in favor of higher standards, is wary of this approach. One of their approaches is to use students from Bethel College to give one-on-one help to students.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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St. Paul Public Schools set an unprecedented goal this year to boost achievement by 10 percentage points for every demographic group on all-important state tests, following a year in which barely half its students scored proficient in math and fewer than that in reading.

Hamilton Bell, principal of North End Elementary, is optimistic that his high-minority, high-poverty school will meet the goal, if only because he knows exactly what's necessary: improved scores for four African-American, five Asian, three Hispanic and two white students among the 310 students at his school.

Those numbers were on a sheet of paper handed to Bell and principals of the district's other 84 schools at an August meeting when the initiative was announced.

District leaders are keen to raise test scores and have given the schools data on how every student has performed in reading and math over the past year, online tools to diagnose individual weaknesses, suggestions for solutions, and a cache of resources to apply them.

Bell meets regularly to review the record of each student with classroom teachers and subject experts. During one such meeting on a recent soggy afternoon, Melissa Essler, the school's curriculum coordinator, looked at Bell then at fifth-grade teacher Bret Godfrey and told him, "On average your math class is one year behind and your reading class is one and a half years behind. ... There's nowhere to go but up from here."

Essler, Godfrey, Bell and two other teachers then spent their time figuring which children would get help from the school's reading and math specialist or from an outside agency that provides volunteer tutoring. The discussion sometimes gets passionate about finding ways to help students not selected for intensive help.

Bell said he plans to do student reviews with teachers every six weeks this year. So far the strategy has paid off. Last year, the school boosted its math scores by 12 percentage points to a level higher than the district average. Those gains weren't expected from a school with the hodgepodge of students that North End has, where the taped telephone greeting on its general number is spoken in English, Spanish and Hmong. Bell also has instituted a school dress code that requires uniforms, and he has separated the boys from the girls in kindergarten through fourth grade.

He has recruited help from Bethel University in St. Paul, which has brought a class of nine students who take early morning college courses in the elementary school and then spend much of the day serving as teachers' assistants, before more classes after school.

Harnessing data

In the world of high-stakes tests, Bell's St. Paul school shows how the art of teaching is evolving, and academic records, like those at the doctor's office, can follow students everywhere they go.

The stakes are high because the No Child Left Behind law requires states to test students in almost every grade every year and then to have all students proficient in reading and math by 2014. Schools that consistently underperform face escalating sanctions, including reformulation, which can replace its staff.

St. Paul is just one of many districts harnessing computer-driven data to advance student performance. Minneapolis Public Schools and other districts are doing so as well.

"Our over-arching strategy is to get information that is timely and relevant into the hands of decision-makers," said Dave Heistad, research and assessment director for the Minneapolis schools. The district can now instantly get updates on how particular groups are performing -- such as kids from low-income families -- and a good idea of how they will perform on exams, Heistad said.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state's largest, also has ambitious goals this year, targeting a 10 percent reduction in the number of kids who don't meet standards, said Laurie Resch, curriculum director for the district's elementary schools. Rather than telling each school exactly what its responsibilities are, Resch said, Anoka-Hennepin is allowing schools to set their own goals.

Moving a mountain

But breaking down the big goal into individual schools, classrooms and kids, as St. Paul has done, makes it easier to understand and focus on, said Michelle Walker, the district's chief accountability officer, who is in charge of testing. She initially made the presentation showing that for St. Paul schools to reach a 10 percentage-point gain, it would mean higher scores for about 1,500 of the district's 37,000 kids.

With teachers, principals and subject specialists ready to surround kids struggling to advance, "We're not talking about moving a mountain," Walker said. "We're talking about moving five stones at a time."

Some are leery of a targeted approach. "Teachers are absolutely aghast at the message that they are supposed to pick and choose which students they're going to help this year," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of St. Paul Federation of Teachers, which represents the district's 3,300 classroom teachers.

Such a strategy also wouldn't likely offer long-term gains, said Karen Seashore, an education professor at the University of Minnesota. "Telling schools how many third-graders they need to pass will not have a significant long-term effect," Seashore said. "All it does is make third-grade teachers wish they were teaching second grade or fourth grade."

But coupled with help for teachers and students, raising standards can be a good thing, she added.

St. Paul district leaders disavow any strategy targeted to a few students. And at the classroom level, North End Principal Bell said he just wouldn't do that. "I wouldn't know whether a student I left out wouldn't be able to turn it around a be a leader," he said. "We want to help all our students."

Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287

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