Friday, August 08, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Benchmark: Plus, minus

The Leader has just finished running a three-part series taking an in-depth look at Benchmark scores, and, though there is some good news in the recently released information from the state, there are also disturbing trends.

These disturbing trends should be the concern of the state, community, districts and students’ families.

The state-mandated Benchmark exams fulfill the federal requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and are designed to see how well students can handle math and literacy (reading, writing, English) at their own grade level.

The federal requirement and the state goal was to have all students scoring proficient or advanced by the end of this past school year. The state didn’t make it. Some districts, like Cabot, averaged in the 80s. But others, like the Pulaski County Special School District, were in the mid 60s. That’s a major disparity within the state and nearby districts.

Why is Cabot about 30 points better than PCSSD? Some say facilities, some say differences in student bodies, others say the push and involvement by parents, and that may all be true. But surely there is something going on in Cabot that is transferable to other districts.

The Benchmark scores show that, overall, more emphasis is placed on literacy than math. At almost every level, third through eighth grade, literacy scores are higher. The exception is third grade, where math runs about nine points higher than literacy.

In many area schools, the two subjects’ scores were close. Cabot Junior High South seventh graders were 79 percent proficient or better in math and at 82 percent in literacy. Sylvan Hills third graders were 80 percent proficient or better in math, and 78 percent did likewise in literacy. That’s balanced teaching.

But too many schools had gaps where math was 20, 30 or more points under the literacy score. Even Arnold Drive Elementary, where the fifth graders hit that magical 100 percent mark in literacy, was 25 points lower in math. Pinewood had an almost 60-point gap between math and literacy at the fifth grade level (32 percent compared to 90 percent).

These large gaps are a problem, especially when math skills are so important in a global economy. So what is the problem? Parents need to ask, and districts need to figure it out. At a school like Pinewood, where the gap is so large, the math teachers need to be fired. It’s that simple, or is it?

Most college education instructors say that math is the weakest subject among elementary teachers who teach all subjects. Many of these teachers are fearful of math, and that attitude gets passed on. It is not a question of more training, but the right training. So show these struggling teachers that math can be, should be and is fun, not as hard as it looks and is certainly not the monster under the bed.

The Benchmark scores also show that a number of districts are losing students’ efforts, commitment, enthusiasm and brainpower at the junior high level.

In PCSSD, for example, poor junior high scores — only 28 percent of the eighth graders made the cut in math and barely half passed the literacy portion — puts a tremendous burden on the high school.

Jacksonville High School has been slammed over the years for its poor test scores (although they are slowly improving), but Benchmark scores show the fault does not rest entirely with the high school. Bluntly put, they are receiving an inferior product to begin with.

Now changes have been made at Jacksonville Middle School and, hopefully, they will take hold. A vote for a new school district may infuse enthusiasm and ownership into every school level in Jacksonville, but, ultimately, it is up to the parents to push the value of education at home, at school and in the district.

PCSSD is not the only area district with severe issues. England starts off with nearly all of its third graders scoring proficient or advanced in math and literacy – hooray — but, by junior high time, it falls to around 50 percent or less.

Now for good news, let’s cheer for Stagecoach third graders in Cabot as 100 percent of those students hit the mark in math. And Mountain Springs, with 95 percent, came close.

Arnold Drive third and fourth graders had some of the best scores in PCSSD, and the school’s fifth graders hit the 100 percent mark.

Then there are the Warren Dupree fifth graders, who made a 30-point jump in their math scores.

Flightline Upper Academy sixth graders had scores in the 90s on both portions of the exam.

Paraphrasing former First Lady Hillary Clinton, “It takes a whole village to raise and maintain high test scores.”