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Newport Elementary School math scores buck the trend

Don't tell the teachers at Newport Elementary School that kids hate math, because their students are learning to like it.

Tests show that the school is bucking the trends -- 80 percent of the students that receive free and reduced-price lunches passed the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment II math tests they took last spring.

That compares with 50 percent of students in the same group nationwide.

The test, given to third, fourth, fifth and sixth-graders, was longer and harder than the 2006 test.

Newport's test scores are examples of what appears to be an upward trend in School District 833 math scores.

In 2006, 49 percent of Newport fifth-graders passed the math test. When they were sixth-graders last spring, scores jumped to 71 percent.

To achieve better results in math achievement, the school made math a priority.

Newport Elementary School Principal Michael Moore said teachers met in "professional learning community" settings where they agreed on ways to achieve the goal and make sure the curriculum lined up with state math standards for each grade level.

"Teachers made a huge effort," Moore said. "It didn't take convincing from me. The numbers don't lie. They all embraced it."

To further the goal, physical education, music and art specialists are doing their part because the math emphasis is continuing this year.

While doing jumping jacks in gym, for example, specialists ask students to count by twos or by uneven numbers.

"The kids are more confident and much more likely to succeed with a 'can do' attitude," Moore said. "Attitude is very important."

To help the effort, the school hosted a family night featuring math games. Teachers assembled bags of math games for kids to play with their families and friends over the winter break.

The school board and the administration helped the math achievement effort by giving schools resources, Moore said.

An additional teacher was allocated to each elementary school last year. Newport, which has 324 students, chose to add a math resource teacher. This year, they added an additional half-time math teacher.

State "targeted services" also pays for busing for after-school math classes offering students computer math programs and additional skills using math games.

In the fall of 2006, the school determined which students needed additional help using MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) computerized math tests. Results are available to teachers the next day. Tests were also given this year.

The tests are designed to reveal weaknesses in four areas of math such as computation and number sense, for example.

Results guide teachers to narrow the focus for struggling students who are pulled out from regular classroom instruction to meet in small groups with resource teachers. The specialists align their lessons to what is being taught that day by classroom teachers.

In the past, students that were pulled out of class for additional help stayed there the entire year. Now, after students make sufficient progress, they are cycled back to their classrooms, according to Rick Spicuzza, district director of research, evaluation and assessment.

In the past, there was a negative attitude toward kids being pulled out of classrooms for additional help. At Newport, according to Math Resource Teacher Molly Lester, it's a badge of honor. Most kids look forward to it, she said.

Leah Martin, half-time math resource teacher, meets daily with third-graders who have been identified as needing extra help.

Last week, she was teaching number places using a game. Students -- having learned about 10, 100, and 1,000 --moved to 10,000.

Using a cardboard square with numbers, students took turns spinning a paper clip to get a number as they would playing most board games. They wrote the numbers in each of the five slots to see who could get the highest total.

In this exercise, choosing the right slot causes 98,642 to be higher than 98,426.

Some students quickly grasped that if they used a high number, such as nine, in the 10,000 slot, they had a better chance of winning points that they keep track of in their folders.

One student had a hard time grasping that 98,642 is not "ninety and eight thousand."

Martin asked him to repeat the number but she knew he was not grasping the concept. She repeated the game several times including all her students but did not press him for the correct answer. Pressure makes kids feel uncomfortable, she said, and they give up.

The next day, however, while playing the same game, the student caught on. "I could tell the light bulbs were going off," Martin said.

When students enter sixth-grade, math class includes pre-algebra concepts.

"This is getting easy," said Alex Amble, sixth-grader, in one of Lester's small groups.

Using a board game, Lester explained that "A" is the variable in the equation A + 4 =?

Using a spinner, the number the paper clip lands on determines what "A" is. If the number is eight, for example, the student adds eight and four to get 12 and moves 12 squares on the game board.

"If Seng gets 13, she'll win the game," said Tou Vang.

Seng Vang's spin landed on nine and she won. The other students groaned and pleaded to play the game again.

"Tomorrow, the formula will change and get harder," Lester said, sending her students back to class. When Lester and Martin play the games multiple times with students, the result is the nearly the same as using "worksheets," which Lester calls "kill and drill."

The difference is that the process of getting correct answers is shared. Students learn from each others' successes and failures.

Spicuzza said there is hard evidence that the repeating information helps students to become fluent and understand larger math and reading concepts. "When students are halting with every word or number, they use a lot of energy," he said. "It's best if the information can flow like a stream of water."

In the past, students had to fail before they got help. Under a new strategy, kids that struggle are immediately sent to meet in small groups with resource teachers.

By intervening quickly with struggling students in early grades, it opens the door to make significant progress in higher grades, said Linda Rull, assistant superintendent for elementary instruction.

When fifth and sixth-grade students struggle in math, it's not because they don't grasp the concepts in class, according to Lester. Most often it's the result of changing schools and missing parts of the curriculum that deal with multiplication and division.

Understanding new math information depends on mastery of what has been taught. If a student misses memorizing multiplication tables for sevens and eights, failures multiply.

"When they come in here, they realize that someone finally knows what they are struggling with," Lester said.

It's too soon to tell if the changes in the way elementary teachers are delivering math instruction are making a difference in how students perform in junior high, according to Travis Barringer, district math and science coordinator.

But there are continuing problems in junior high with kids who are not doing well in math.

To reverse this, Woodbury Junior High School is piloting a computer math program, to find areas where students are lacking math facts, according to Barringer.

The software then sets individualized programs that students practice for 10 minutes a day.

While the public, politicans and teachers often debate the merits of testing, Lester said she thinks it's important.

"But, by golly, it's doing the job," Lester said. "I look at how important those numbers are. Teachers often know which children are struggling, but now, we have proof."

Barringer said teachers are not as concerned with the amount of time spent testing as they are about the delay in getting MCA scores. Spring results are not available until September after the kids have moved to the next grade.

Testing will continue, Barringer said, as the district "ramps up" math proficiency for sixth, seventh and eighth-graders who will take state tests in algebra I and algebra II in high school. If they don't pass the tests, they won't graduate.

There will be more rigorous tests in the future for all grades, according to Spicuzza and Barringer.

The Minnesota Department of Education is currently designing another generation of MCA tests, Barringer said, that will require third-graders to master addition, subtraction, multiplication and division by the time they are tested.

Judy Spooner can be reached at

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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