Whitefish School District administrators and teachers are looking at ways to improve after analyzing reading and math scores from assessment tests taken by students early in the school year.
Curriculum Director Ryder Delaloye presented on Star testing and assessment data to the school board last week. The Star reading and math tests are 25-minute, adaptive tests taken by students three times a year, with the goal of informing the teachers’ lesson plans and identifying students who are falling behind.
“Data carries a lot of weight and it carries a lot of authority. It’s very easy to look at these graphics that I’ll share with you and think that is the cumulative reading of our students. Star is a formative assessment tool, just like observation [or] a quiz,” he said. “We look to use Star as a tool to inform instruction, and that is situated as part of our [Multi-Tiered Systems of Support] process.”
The MTSS process is a problem-solving framework the district uses to provide target support to struggling students, hoping to address behavioral and academic issues early. The tiers include the student body as a whole, smaller groups that need intervention and individualized support systems. Whitefish and Bozeman school districts are the only districts in the state to implement MTSS across all their schools.
The results of the Star tests show the percentage of students who are scoring at or above their grade level benchmarks.
At Whitefish Middle School, the highest percentages of students hitting the grade level mark in reading comes in sixth- and seventh-grade, where 75 percent and 74 percent of students are at or above grade level. In fifth-grade, 66 percent hit the benchmark and 69 percent of eighth-graders hit the benchmark in reading.
On the math side at the middle school, 76 percent of fifth-graders, 73 percent of sixth-graders, 79 percent of seventh-graders and 81 percent of eighth-graders were at or above grade level.
At Whitefish High School, 12th-graders were the lowest percentage of students hitting the standard for reading at 63 percent, down from the 68 percent scored by the same class a year before. Ninth-graders had 69 percent hit the benchmark, 10th grade was 77 percent and 11th grade 71 percent in reading.
In math, 84 percent of ninth-graders, 91 percent of 10th-graders, 93 percent of 11th-graders and 88 percent of 12th-graders hit at or above grade level benchmarks.
At Muldown, 58 percent of first-graders, 55 percent of second-graders, 57 percent of third-graders and 69 percent of fourth-graders hit the benchmark for reading. First grade results are combined with early literacy testing.
In the second grade reading results, 24 students were flagged for needing urgent intervention, compared to 21 students in third grade and 18 in fourth grade.
In math, 70 percent of first-graders, 74 percent of second-graders, 79 percent of third-graders and 79 percent of fourth-graders were at or above grade level.
Delaloye noted an expected drop off in fall results due to the “summer slide,” and said results need to be examined within the context of the whole school year. The results this year were within a few percentage points of last year’s results from the same time at Muldown, he noted.
During the presentation, Trustee Katie Clarke asked why a significant chunk of students missed the mark in the tests. The percentage of students missing the benchmark was also brought up earlier in the meeting by parents frustrated with the results.
“Why are nearly a third to a half of our kids below the reading grade level benchmark?,” asked Clarke. “That seems like a lot to me. It’s a hard question but I feel responsible to ask that.”
Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said the answer to Clarke’s question is what the district’s support teams are looking for at the moment.
“It’s an excellent question and that’s exactly what the MTSS teams are wrestling with and exactly what our grade level teams are wrestling with as well,” she said. “What I would say is that percentile hasn’t changed much, as to what you see when you look at the 2017 versus the 2018, so how do we really address that — that’s really a question of the instruction and interventions and all that the grade level teams are working on and that the MTSS teams are working on.”
Trustee Betsy Kohnstamm also wondered about the real-world relation of the tests and whether other testing methods should be used in Star’s place.
“I know Star is being used throughout the state. I’ve struggled with it, I’ve analyzed data for many years with it. I think it’s a question, how does that really support literacy? There’s some things about it that really are not what I consider a literate kid,” she said. “I’d like everybody to be really open about what kinds of assessments we use. If they’re not working, if kids hate taking them, if we’re not getting good results from them, I think it’s something we should really be open to as a district, is looking at that.”
In response to a question by a member of the public concerning how the test results are applied to the classroom, a few Whitefish teachers shared their experiences with Star testing.
Second-grade teacher Bonnie Hannigan said while the results aren’t directly affecting what she’s teaching, she uses the results as a metric to gauge where her students are at and identify those who might need extra help.
Andrew Staub, fourth-grade teacher, said there’s “absolutely” value to the testing, and third-grade teacher Sarah Akey said the data is helpful but more resources might be needed to help teachers address the students falling short.
“I think the data that we get is great,” Akey said. “I think we find out all this great information but then we have all these students that need this extra help, and I think that’s where the teachers and the administration and all of us are just really frustrated because we’re not really sure why there’s so many kids still needing help. I feel like every teacher in this district is working their tails off for the students, but it is frustrating.”