Sitting in the principal’s office at Bester Elementary School on a summer day, Amia Applewhite’s face lights up as she talks about how excited and happy she was during the last school year.
Early in the school year, one of the things Bester students did was set goals for themselves, Principal Kristi Bachtell said.
“That really made me excited, how I could write them down,” said Amia, 10, who will start fifth grade in August.
She said she liked the tokens she received for achieving her goals, tokens she would exchange for stuffed animals or pencils, or gifts for her family such as a mug for her grandmother and soap for her mother.
“To not be in the office or get referrals for behavior,” to hone her math skills such as multiplication and to read at a higher level, said Amia, who admitted she didn’t study hard before the fourth grade.
The goal-setting and positive reinforcement worked as Amia’s attitude improved, as did her math and reading skills. Amia’s reading level was below grade level when she started fourth grade, and was at the fifth-grade level by spring, Bachtell said.
Bachtell said she believes the empowerment that setting goals gave students was a big reason that Bester met its assessment test proficiency goals as a school and improved the percentage of students who were considered to be at least “proficient” in math from 68 percent in 2011 to 79.5 percent in 2012.
Students weren’t always rewarded with tokens because the point was to get them to want to learn, Bachtell said.
“The more they succeeded, the more excited they were to try,” and would set another goal, she said.
Amia said she wanted to do better in school “because I wanted to be where my friends were and I wanted teachers to be proud of me — and my parents and my family.”
Bester’s goal-setting strategy was among the ways Washington County Public Schools’ educators worked to improve students’ academic performances in the last school year.
Among the many measures the school system has to indicate how well it’s performing the role of educating children are assessment tests, the results of which were released last week for grades three through eight.
How they fared
In 2011, the school system had 17 schools that missed the proficiency target in at least one area — based on the percentage of students who scored at least “proficient” on their reading or math assessment tests. In 2012, seven schools in the system missed at least one proficiency target, according to school system officials and information at the Maryland State Department of Education’s website at www.mdreportcard.org.
The state website listed an eighth school, E. Russell Hicks Middle School, as missing the proficiency target for reading. Jeremy Jakoby, the school system’s supervisor for testing and accountability, said that was an error and that the school met proficiency by being within a margin of error. The state education department had not confirmed that as of Friday.
The state of Maryland received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education so its public schools no longer have to meet the ultimate goal of having every child, who had been in the school for a certain period of time and had taken the assessment tests, score at least “proficient” in reading and math for the 2013-14 school year. On the way to reaching that goal were annual targets that had gotten increasingly difficult to meet.
Under the waiver, each school now has customized targets, with the goal for each school being that, essentially, it cuts in half by the 2016-17 school year the number of students who were scoring only “basic” in math and reading.
The targets are based on percentages rather than actual student numbers because of changing enrollment figures. Through assessment tests, students are deemed to be at “basic,” “proficient” or “advanced” levels in reading and math.
There still are standards to meet, but with the waiver, those standards are more realistic, said Richard Akers and Steve Wernick, directors of secondary and elementary education for Washington County Public Schools.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of setting the bar lower, but taking students from where they are and trying to improve every year,” Akers said.
“Waiver or no waiver, it’s about the students and progressing,” Wernick said.
With Hicks, 25 of 32 county public elementary and middle schools met the 2012 performance goals for math and reading. Of those, 12 elementary schools and four middle schools met or exceeded the goal, while the other schools that met the proficiency goals did so by having percentages of students deemed “proficient” within the margin of error for the school. The margin of error is based on the school’s population.
Among the schools that did not meet proficiency standards in 2011, the school that was in the most precarious situation was Western Heights Middle School. Western Heights, in Hagerstown’s West End, had not met all proficiency standards in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
Nor would the school have met every proficiency standard in the last school year under the old No Child Left Behind standards set by the state.
If Maryland had not received the waiver, Western Heights would face restructuring. That could have meant a new leadership team working with a new staff, or reopening the school as a charter school run independently from the school system with its own board, state education officials said a year ago.
While Western Heights had the lowest percentages, among county middle schools, of students who scored at least “proficient” on the reading and math assessment tests, the school did meet the new proficiency goals set under the waiver by being within the margin of error. The percentage of students who scored at least “proficient” in reading went from 76.1 percent in 2011 to 75.7 percent.
However, Western Heights showed significant improvement on the math side, going from 69.8 percent of students being proficient in 2011 to 78 percent with the latest assessment tests.
“I’m very pleased with the math score, but I believe we can do a lot better with the reading,” Principal Michael Kuhaneck said.
School officials will continue working to help students improve in math, but reading will be a big focus this coming school year, he said.
Further implementation of the new Common Core curriculum, a more rigorous, in-depth curriculum, will help because it will require students to do more writing in core subjects, including math, science and social studies, he said.
The previous state curriculum focused more on reading, but reading and writing should be coupled, he said.
On the math side, more students earned an advanced score with the latest assessment tests, Kuhaneck said.
Of the students who will be eighth-graders this school year, 19 percent were advanced in math as sixth-graders, but 29.6 percent of them were advanced in math as seventh-graders, Kuhaneck said.
“That, to me, shows we have a lot more rigorous instruction going on,” Kuhaneck said. “A lot of the state report focuses on where students fail to get from ‘basic” to ‘proficient.’ But, it’s also important to go from ‘proficient’ to ‘advanced.’ It’s about accelerating learning for all students.”
Goal-setting and improving isn’t just for the students.
Bester Principal Kristi Bachtell said her teachers and administrative staff set goals.
Pictures of the employees, along with their stated goals, were posted on a bulletin board outside the main office for parents and students to see so students knew adults have goals, too, she said.
Each grade’s teachers meet weekly with instructional leadership staff to review data from various benchmark or assessment tests that students take throughout the school year, Bachtell said.
Then they asked themselves four questions:
- What do we want all of our students to learn?
- How do we know when each student has learned what we want them to learn?
- How do we respond when a student experiences difficulty learning or doesn’t learn?
- How do we extend the learning for students who have already mastered what we want them to learn? How do we bump it up?
“Those four questions really drove our planning. I felt it really helped us focus,” Bachtell said.
At Western Heights, every teacher is assigned 10 to 12 students to mentor as those students progress from sixth through eighth grade, said Kuhaneck, who also serves as a mentor.
Mentors go over report cards with their students, talking to them about their grades and setting goals, he said.
It’s not all work. Birthdays are celebrated, and students who achieve their goals are recognized at three ceremonies throughout the school year and parents are invited, Kuhaneck said.
In the last school year, more than 600 Western Heights shirts were given to students to reward them and boost school spirit, he said.
Students who meet their goals receive certificates and letters written by their teachers describing what the teachers saw in each student that made him or her successful, he said.
Just this past week, Kuhaneck said, teachers came into Western Heights to work with lead teachers on planning for the new school year.
“It’s nice to see the teachers taking such big ownership and giving up their summertime,” Kuhaneck said.
Pride and attitude
Bester students who achieved academic or behavioral goals received stickers that proclaimed: “Mrs. Bachtell is proud of me.”
Then, the student’s picture was taken with their schoolwork, and the picture was posted on a “refrigerator” in Bachtell’s office. The “Bester Appliances” brand fridge is a board decorated like a refrigerator with the sign, “Mrs. Bachtell’s fab fridge.”
“They were very excited to come down and get a sticker and be on the refrigerator,” Bachtell said.
Amia said getting her picture on Bachtell’s refrigerator made her “really happy.”
Sharing some of what she learned, Amia sang a song of multiples of three that her teacher, Kevin Sandell, taught her fourth-grade class. She found reading so enjoyable, she did online research about some of her reading topics, such as Anne Frank.
Her interest in Anne Frank led to a family trip a week ago to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where Amia got to see some of Frank’s original writings, said Amia’s mother, Tressa Bowers.
Bowers said she stresses the importance of learning to Amia.
When Amia gets home from school, she has to do her homework, and during the summer, Amia reads for at least 20 minutes four days a week, Bowers said.
“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” Bowers said.
While Amia’s reading improved, overall, the percentage of students who scored at least “proficient” in reading dropped slightly from 75.5 percent in 2011 to 74.4 percent in 2012, according to state data.
Last summer, Bester was deemed to be in “school improvement” after it didn’t meet state reading and math proficiency targets for two consecutive years.
Bester met the reading proficiency goal for 2012 by being within the margin of error, according to state data.
Bester’s school improvement team will dig into the assessment test data this summer.
While Bachtell said she’s excited about the successes Bester’s students and teachers have had in the last school year, “We can’t be satisfied,” she said.