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Oh so close

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By Jonna Spelbring Priester

General Manager

Each year when Commonwealth Accountability Testing Results are released, New Castle Elementary School Principal Barbara James compares her school to others.

“I look at La Grange Elementary, because their demographics are similar,” she said, noting that the scores tend to run close to one another. “They have a whole lot more staff, smaller class size — a 15-to-1 student to teacher ratio — an assistant principal and full time counselor.”

James also takes a look at Crestwood Elementary School, and said New Castle beat the Oldham county school. While New Castle’s academic index was slightly lower than Crestwood, NCES did best the school’s biennium score.

“This only gives me a strong feeling for the staff and the school that they are so hard working and so dedicated to these kids,” James said.

And that, she said, is why she was disappointed that the school’s scores fell slightly this year.

“We just have to get real picky about what we look at, and look at our weaknesses down to the nitty gritty, nit picky stuff.”

Overall James said the school’s teachers were excited that math and social studies scores came up, reflecting what she said was hard work over the last few years.

James said that the school’s fourth grade students with disabilities, a class of 11 students, may have affected the scores, particularly as NCES is the only elementary school in the district that has functionally mentally disabled students. That group, she said, includes students with autism and is required to take an alternative test. As a whole, the students with disabilities group can include any student with an individual education plan or specific learning disability, or Turrets or ADHD.

“Their scores count as a group, so we need to do a better job of getting those kids to proficiency as well, whether it’s an alternative assessment or regular assessment with accommodations,” she said.

James expressed a concern that while all children need attention, and that “we tend to focus on all extremes, but those middle, average kids a lot of times get left out in the cold,” despite teachers’ efforts to make sure all students get what they need.

Much like Campbellsburg and Eastern Elementary Schools, James said New Castle has intervention programs for all students. Depending on the needs of the student, the intervention program can include hands on activities, or whatever strategy the teachers deem to work best.

“If we have a group of students who need to work on their multiplication table, the teacher will do all kinds of different strategies with those kids,” James said.

After completing a gap analysis, James said the school has developed a few goals, including targeting what appears to be the school’s weakest area — answering open response questions.

“We’ve worked very hard on open response for the last few years in kindergarten through fifth grade,” she said. “We’ve been very consistent, used the same organizational tools, but we feel like we’re just not getting the kids ... we’re not setting them free soon enough. We’re holding their hands too much.”

The school identified several priorities during its analysis of the scores, James said including clearly explaining what proficient means and looks like; talking with students individually about their scores; analyzing student work “in our levels teams”; developing better open response questions; developing a school safety plan and developing a school wide writing plan.

A safe learning environment, she said, helps students feel more comfortable.

“A lot of our kids are coming from homes where they don’t have warm, supportive environments,” James said. “When they come here, we meet and greet them, we make them feel happy and loved. When they feel that way in school, they’re ready to learn. It’s like addressing counseling issues ... if they’re not safe, if they’re going to get bullied and beat up ... do you think they’re going to be ready to learn?”

While she said one of the school’s strengths is the depth to which the staff cares about the students, James said she also hopes to increase parental involvement in the school.

The school asks parents for just three hours a year in volunteer time.

“I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t,” she said. “All of the research tells you that parent involvement increases student achievement. But we have some really awesome parents ... (and) volunteers.”

THE SCORES:

Since 1999, the first year for CATS testing, NCES’ accountability index has ranged from a low of 68.7 in 2002 to a high of 87.4 in 2007.The novice score has generally decreased from 22.55 in 1999 to a low of 8.61 last year.

The 2008 accountability index of 85.9 is the second highest in the school’s testing history, and represents a 1.5-point drop from 2007. With that score falling just one-half point shy of the goal of 87.2, the school fell in the “progressing” range for the 2007/2008 biennium. This biennium, however, marked a 5.1-point increase over the 2005/2006 biennium, and the average novice rate of 9.48 was almost six points lower than the 2005/2006 mark.

The school gained ground in just two content areas  — math and science — with delinces ranging from less than one point to more than ten in the remaining content areas.

Reading

New Castle enjoyed its highest reading scores during the first year of testing with a score of 105. Since then, the scores have hovered near 90, and this year, the overall reading score was 93.9, about three points lower than in 2007.

While James said that students with disabilities scores were low, the group of 11 fourth grade students scored 70.7, an improvement of nearly six points from their third grade year.

“The one thing I was really happy to see was the free/reduced kids coming up,” she said, adding that she believed the school was on pace to hit 100 in reading again.

Math

Math has improved nearly 30 points since the first year of testing, and this year’s core of 88.9 is the highest the school has achieved.

Among the accountable grade levels for math (third through fifth grades), the scores for students on free/reduced lunch improved considerably. Third grade free/reduced students increased more than 20 points, but students not approved for the program fell by more than 17; fourth grade students approved for free/reduced lunch fell by more than eight points; and fifth grade students approved for the program improved 13 points.

Though math also reflected the school’s largest gap — a 51 point disparity for students with disabilities in the fourth grade. Their score of 46.4, though, reflected a 2.2-point increase from their 2007 mark.

James said the scores, along with social studies, was a reflection of a very talented group of fifth grade teachers. One teacher handles math, another reading, and still another social studies. As a result, the teachers think of the scores in those areas as their own.

Science

The school’s largest drop came in science, where scores fell Oct2 points to a still respectable 88.8.

The sciences scores fell in no small part due to an increase in the novice scores. Where there had been no novice scores in 2007, there were nine. But the school also saw a slight increase in the number of proficient scores — three more than in 2007.

Social Studies

One of the subjects that James said reflected a talented fifth grade class, social studies scores increased eight points to 84.7.

In general, scores for all fifth grade students increased, and students approved for free/reduced lunch jumped 17 points to a 75.7.

Arts and Humanities

When CATS testing began in 1999, NCES had a rock bottom arts and humanities score of just 38.9. In the 10 years since, the school has tacked on another 50 points, to a 89.3 last year. This year, scores dipped almost eight points to 81.5, and scores between student groups varied. Girls’ scores dropped by nearly 20 points, while boys increased by 3, and students approved for free/reduced lunch increased by more than two points, while students not approved for the program fell by 20 points — though that drop was still to a score of 97.

Practical Living/Vocational Studies

James said NCES’ practical living scores reflected a statewide tend, with a drop of more than eight points. While more students earned proficient scores, more students also earned novice scores.

As with arts and humanities, James said the school’s scores reflected a state trend.

“Where trends fell, they fell across the state,” she said, and added that many of the questions seemed ambiguous. “Teachers noticed that test questions were not quite (clear) ... it could be this answer. When the adults are thinking that, what are the kids thinking?”

Writing

Writing scores fell slightly, just 0.9 points in portfolio writing and 6.7 points in on demand writing. While there were no novice portfolios in 2007, there were two this year. As with science, there was a slight increase in the number of proficient and distinguished portfolios. Overall, portfolio scores remained relatively steady compared to 2007.

On Demand writing scores, however, fell nearly seven points to 88.3. Here, the fifth grade class had four novice, compared to three in 2007, but 29 proficient portfolios compared to 22 in 2007.

Challenges

With a growing student population, James said one of the challenges NCES faces is simply having the space for all of its students. Each kindergarten class, she said, has 27 students. And there are two preschool classes.

“When we have intervention groups, we do a lot of it in the same rooms, sometimes out in the hall on the floor,” she said. “We use closets, every little space we can find.”

The school also lost one-fourth of its certified teachers last year, and has eight new faces in the classrooms. Four of those, she said, are teachers in their very first year in the classroom.

Despite those challenges, James feels confident the school will reach the state goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. She’s so confident about it, she gave her staff a faster goal.

“I gave my staff two years,” she said. “In two years, we’ll be there. I believe that.”

The keys, she said, will be consistency, team work and dedication to the kids.

She hopes the scores go up, not just because that brings the school closer to its goal.

“When the scores stay flat, I’m more disappointed for (the teachers) because I know how hard they’ve worked,” she said. “We’ve identified what we needed to fix, and a lot of those problems have been resolved.”

E-mail us about this at editor@hclocal.com.