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WKCE scores aren't as bad as they look in Greenfield

April 30, 2013

Greenfield - Local school officials and parents who are used to seeing 70 to 80 percent of students working at grade level on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam had to face the fact that only a third are proficient in reading and barely half are proficient in math this time around.

With a "passing grade" set much higher this year in reading and math, the percentage of students deemed to be at least proficient has plummeted in Greenfield and in schools all over Wisconsin.

In Greenfield, where 82 percent of students were at least proficient in reading last year, only 34 percent were under the higher "passing grade." Similarly, 74 percent of Greenfield students were at least proficient in math last year, but only 46 percent were this year.

Higher targets

The test is the same, only the targets have been raised. Those "passing grades" are based on performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test of what students nationwide know and can do in core subjects.

Students in grades three through eight and in 10th grade take the WKCE each fall. The target has been for all the students' scores to be in the proficient or advanced categories in each of the five subjects tested - reading, math, language arts including grammar, science and social studies. Students who aren't working at grade level fall into the basic or minimal achievement categories.

Raising the bar for a passing grade is part of the state's overall shift to the Common Core Standards that have been adopted in many other states.

With the Common Core Standards will come testing that is radically different than the WKCE, which will be dropped. In spring 2015, the Smarter Balance Assessment based on the Common Core Standards will start.

Math additions

The Greenfield schools are already getting students ready for the new type of testing that will probe for deeper learning and problem-solving ability.

That is especially true in math this year. Teachers involved in a pilot project, called "investigative math," reported to the Greenfield School Board on Monday.

Fifth-grade Maple Grove Elementary School teacher Eric Kanters said the change has been profound. Instead of teaching students how to solve math problems and then letting them go at solving them, he challenges students to think of how to solve the problems themselves. Through his coaching and guiding, the kids discuss various approaches and eventually come up with the right ones.

"It leads to a rich discussion," Kanters said.

Students critique each others' ideas and help them be more precise, he said.

Figuring out how to solve the problems isn't the end, either. Students have to explain why their technique works, which leads to more precision in language and thought, Kanters said.

Early results

"It's neat to see how the kids have grown," said Kanters, who has taught 13 years in the district.

In fact, last week, as an experiment, the Maple Grove fifth-graders took the Smarter Balance Assessment math test and their three teachers agreed that the students in the pilot project seemed better prepared, Kanters said.

Rachel Boario, a third-grade teacher at Maple Grove who also is in the pilot program, had similar results. Her younger students also have puzzled out methods of solving problems on their own using physical teaching aides. And they are actually enthusiastic about math.

"They love it," Boario said, adding that they protest if their math lesson has to be cut short.

At the secondary level, teachers will be trained in August to start a new math program called Big Ideas, which has the same investigative focus balanced with the more traditional approach of teachers telling students how to solve problems.

The approach is basically the same as in the lower grades. Students will start with what they know to build and create learning, said Diane Eckes, curriculum and instruction coordinator for grades six through 12.

The new program will offer students who excel in math an accelerated math program in grades seven and eight and students who are really math whizzes can start with an accelerated program in sixth grade, she said.

School Board members like what they heard.

"It's refreshing," said School Board member Pam Sierzchulski, who was heartened to hear that discussions are taking place and that children are learning to be articulate in this age of texting and technology that pushes toward abrupt messages.

"It's nice to see pathways," said School Board member Rick Moze. "Before if students excelled in math they had to come to the high school."

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