2015-06-12 / Community

Testing prompts changes to school curriculum

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — While a $1.6 million improvement grant appears to be helping one “failing” elementary school in South Portland, falling scores elsewhere have prompted a sweeping change in science curriculum.

When the Maine Department of Education released its inaugural list of school letter grades in 2013, Kaler Elementary — formally the James Otis Kaler Community School of Exploration in Inquiry — was given an “F.” On a possible 400-point scale, Kaler received 169.3 points, the seventh-worst cumulative score of all 422 schools measured in Maine that house grades three through eight.

The state has since suspended its letter-grade program. However, the publicity caused a furor, local school officials already at work trying to turn things around. Kaler was among 13 Maine schools eligible to apply for a Student Improvement Grant under the federal Title-1 program as a result of perennially low scores on the New England Common Assessment Program test administered each October. Also factored into eligibility was the school’s high percentage of low-income students – 63 percent of its 230-child enrollment qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Only four of the 13 schools met a March 2014 deadline to apply for the Student Improvement Grant money, resulting in $1.6 million awarded to South Portland. The grant did have some strings, such as requiring a principal change. However, at Monday’s school board meeting, new principal Bonnie Hicks, transferred last summer from Small Elementary School, on the other side of the city from Kaler, said the grant has paid off in big ways. Among the changes allowed by the four-year funding boost have been longer class days at Kaler — lengthened by a half hour in the morning, and a half hour in the afternoon — plus targeted interventions that have led in more than half the cases to “positive academic or behavioral growth” of students. Five of the 21 “student concern meetings” led to referrals for special education.

Meanwhile, Kaler has instituted other reforms, such as “breakfast buddies,” in which students have breakfast with an adult mentor. Specialized reading, math and social skills groups targets to three to five students at a time, rotating in and out based on need, have also meant more individualized attention at Kaler, which overall has moved toward a more “hands-on” model of instruction known as “project-based learning.”

According to school data coach Alexis Jones, all of that work at Kaler has meant a boost in standardized testing scores.

In 2014, 28 percent of Kaler students in Grades K-5 were meeting grade-level expectations in math, while 36 percent passed muster in reading. This year, those percentages have jumped to 60 percent and 54 percent, respectively.

Kaler also has increased school-wide testing to three times per year, and results there have proven even more impressive.

Last year, 44 percent of students met “growth expectations” in reading between the fall and spring test. This year, that jumped to 76 percent. In math, the percent of students meeting the intra-year spike in ability jumped from 37 percent in 2014 to 86 percent this year.

“The teachers are obviously thrilled about the data and the students are as well. They’re really owning it,” Hicks said.

“We really are there to do the best for kids and we want all of our kids to be successful,” agreed first-grade teacher Debbie Chapman, adding that it’s been “all hands on deck” at Kaler all year.

“I would say this grant has afforded us some tremendous resources, which are basically supporting the areas we identified in the past as needing extra time and extra support,” Superintendent Suzanne Godin said. “We have seen some tangible results in just one year.”

However, even as Kaler scores have exploded, results district-wide are in free fall.

According to 2014 scores on the New England Common Assessment Program test, the most recent year for which results are available, reading results among grade three students have dropped consistently the past three years, with the two most recent years showing fewer students able to meet or exceed standards than five years ago. Those results have dropped from 76.3 percent proficiency district-wide in 2010 to 62.8 percent in 2014.

The same is true of reading scores at the grade five level where local students have performed at or below the state average four out of five years, with proficiency levels dropping from 71.1 percent in 2010 to 69.9 percent in 2014.

Reading problems also affect science scores, according to an internal memo supporting a change in curriculum, which noted that “in all five elementary schools (students) showed deficits in their ability to analyze and interpret informational text.”

Grade five students failing to meet science standards on the New England Common Assessment Program test ranged from 24 percent at one school to 71 percent at the top performing building. In four out of five elementary schools in South Portland, the memo notes, “a third or more of the students were not proficient,” while even the top performers failed to ace the test, with just five of the 19 top performers in the “distinguished” range achieving all possible points.

As a result, the school board on Monday approved a “change model” in science that will be piloted at Kaler next year involving study modules in grades two through five, at $1,000 “per kit” issued by a publisher called Amplify. The district also will produce its own modules based on the Amplify model for kindergarten and grade one students. After being rolled out next year at Kaler, the new modules are expected to be in use district-wide in 2016-2017.

Not all school board members want a slow roll-out, however.

“Why are we waiting until next year to start a program if what we’re doing right now isn’t working?” asked school director Sara Goldberg.

“Full-scale implementation takes a lot of time and a lot of energy,” Godin replied. “It all takes a huge financial component.”

The school board also gave the nod to instituting a change in reading curriculum. Although the model they expect to be put into place has yet to be determined by a faculty group formed for that purpose, it is expected to assure that all schools are on the same page.

“From classroom to classroom, grade to grade and building to building we lack a common vocabulary used to instruct our students,” read the proposal to institute a change model. “Currently, there is no organized sequence for introducing skills that is shared across all classrooms and buildings. Consequently, one teacher may introduce certain content at specific points in a student’s learning while another teacher may introduce the same content in an entirely different sequence.”

Meanwhile, some school board members suggested that, district-wide, the best solution might be to implement the longer days and targeted interventions put in place at Kaler.

“We know what works, we just have to be willing to do it” school director Rick Carter said.

That also prompted some school board members to question what happens when the Student Improvement Grant runs out. Will the programs implemented under its auspices become part of the regular operating budget, they asked.

But for Godin, set to retire June 30, that was a question for her successor.

“That’s something that you as a board and the administration and the schools are going to have to have a conversation about,” she said.

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