As teachers at two area elementary schools reviewed their students’ math and English ISTEP scores, they knew they needed to teach a different way.
In 2013, 83 percent of Whiteland Elementary School’s students passed the math section of ISTEP, while 74 percent of Northeast Elementary School’s students passed the English section of the test. So at the start of last school year, the teachers at both schools started changing the way they taught their students.
At Whiteland Elementary, teachers tested students at the start of the school year to gauge their math skills. Clark-Pleasant school officials already had helped them identify 12 of the most important math concepts students needed to master, and teachers spent time each day helping students who were behind catch up, while those who were on track worked ahead to learn those lessons.
At Northeast Elementary, all teachers and aides went through training so they knew exactly what skills students needed to learn to become stronger writers. Principal Amy Sander also moved 12 teachers to different grades to ensure all students were learning from teachers who were skilled at teaching specific math and English lessons.
Not all the changes are dramatic. At one school, kids eat breakfast in their classrooms just to eke out a few more minutes with their teachers.
The changes worked.
The two schools, along with Needham Elementary, had the best ISTEP improvements in Johnson County in 2014. The rate of students passing one or all three sections of ISTEP improved by at least 10 percentage points at the three schools, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.
That included Whiteland Elementary’s math scores and Northeast Elementary’s English scores.
While some of the methods that helped students at the three schools build stronger math and English skills were new last school year, others have been in place for years.
“I think that these current ISTEP scores are a reflection of a deep implementation of a lot of changes over the last few years all coming together,” Needham Principal Kent Pettet said.
Teachers at Needham and other Franklin schools have spent the past six years trying to help students become stronger learners. At Needham, students now eat breakfast in their classrooms so they can spend more time with their teachers, and students have started carrying binders detailing the math and language arts skills they still have to master.
Pettet said the binders have been especially important in helping students improve their skills in core subjects.
In the binders, students have a column that lists skills such as their reading level and whether they’re keeping up with their peers or behind. If they’re behind, students also record a list of goals they’re going to achieve to help them catch up, such as reading more stories on their own or using a computer program to build their literacy skills, Pettet said.
Students work regularly with teachers to review what skills they still need to improve and how they’ll set goals for themselves. Pettet said allowing students to help create those goals has been essential because it motivates them to want to improve.
“It really is giving students the ownership of their learning,” he said.
In 2013, students at Needham earned the school’s highest ISTEP scores: 71 percent of students passed both sections of the test, 82 percent passed English, and 77 percent passed math. This year, 82 percent of students passed both sections of the test, 92 percent passed English, and 86 percent passed math.
Needham Elementary School’s teachers didn’t make any drastic changes this school year. But Pettet said that, as students and teachers got more comfortable with creating goals for students to achieve, students became better learners.
Teachers at Whiteland Elementary and other Clark-Pleasant schools also have been working for years to identify the most important math and English lessons that students need to understand. Whiteland Elementary’s teachers decided to focus on building students’ math skills last school year as students had lower ISTEP scores in that subject, Principal Cirsten Lewis said.
She said students at Whiteland Elementary still had traditional math classes, and then they spent about 30 minutes each day either reviewing math lessons they didn’t understand or working ahead with the school’s teachers.
The point wasn’t to prepare students for ISTEP, Lewis said. The point was to make sure students has mastered concepts they would need to know later.
“We decided, very early on, to focus on every kid and every skill, and not the fact that ISTEP is coming,” Lewis said.
Whiteland Elementary’s teachers will start assessing students’ math skills within the next month so they can provide similar help for students who need it throughout the year. The elementary school also will focus on making sure students master English skills, but teachers want to be sure the youngsters’ math skills don’t falter, Lewis said.
Students will take ISTEP this spring, though it will be a different version of the test, which will test students for deeper understanding in math and English. School officials expect students’ scores to fall during the first year of the test, though that doesn’t worry Pettet or Lewis.
“We just make a conscious decision not to panic about things like that,” Lewis said. “It’s the same conscious decision we made last year.”