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After grade drop, school puts pencil to pape

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A Greenwood elementary school disagrees with its state grade — the lowest in the county — but is still working to give extra help to students.

For the past two years, just under two-thirds of students at Northeast Elementary School have consistently passed ISTEP exams in both math and English, but that rate hasn’t risen. Under the Indiana Department of Education’s grading system, a school with ISTEP scores that aren’t improving receives a lower grade. This year, the 400-student elementary school saw its grade drop from a C to a D.

School officials disagree with the lower grade, since more than 60 percent of the 200 students who took ISTEP last spring were kicked offline during the multiple choice portion of the exam.

But the state said only five of the school’s exams were affected by the disruptions, while school officials believe 127 scores were impacted, Principal Amy Sander said.

“At the end of the day, you can’t tell me all those interruptions didn’t impact our growth and how our students performed,” she said.

But Sander and teachers know their students — 70 to 80 percent of whom come from low-income families — continue to need extra help, especially in becoming better writers. That’s why the school is reviewing and updating methods to teach students to write quickly and clearly.

“Writing impacts everything. It goes hand-in-hand with reading,” Sander said.

As school officials reviewed ISTEP scores, they saw that students’ writing scores were starting to slip, Greenwood assistant superintendent of learning Rick Ahlgrim said.

So school officials set aside additional time to work on writing. The school added time during breakfast, before the start of the school day and when students can work on writing lessons with teachers and aides.

The school also has a book club where students can work on writing during recess and is working on creating after school clubs where all students — including ones who are passing ISTEP — can work on writing and other skills, Sander said. Teachers and school officials want to be sure all students grow and improve as much as possible, Sander said.

Improving students’ scores will involve showing them how to quickly prepare clear answers to essay questions and how to answer with greater detail.

For example, an essay question might ask students to describe characteristics of the ocean. If a student has never been to or seen the ocean, they might not think they know how to answer the question. Teachers can show students how to remember what they do know — what they’ve read about the ocean in books or seen through television, computers or other media.

Once students remember those details, they can start to answer the question; but many haven’t been taught how to draw on their own experiences, Sander said.

That’s partly because teachers haven’t had as much training and don’t have as many lessons for working on writing as they do for developing students’ reading comprehension and math skills, Sander said.

Third- through fifth-grade teachers are receiving training, including a conference they attended this month, to learn more about how to make students better writers. They also meet regularly to ensure they’re being consistent and teaching the same writing styles to students. Next month, kindergarten through second-grade teachers will start a similar review of writing lessons, Sander said.

Sander hopes students’ grades and standardized test scores will improve as the school gets better at teaching students crucial writing skills and students become stronger writers.

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