Kalispell schools aim to close student gap in math

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Kalispell Public Schools continues its efforts to close the gap in math achievement as it heads into year two of a five-year strategic plan.

The decision to focus on math stems from a review of grades at the classroom level and state standardized test result trends, namely the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which tests third- through eighth-graders in math and English language arts.

Smarter Balanced Assessment scores didn't change significantly compared to last year at the district and state level.

Callie Langohr, district assistant superintendent, anticipated when the district started the strategic plan in 2017-18 it would take at least three years to see a shift.

“To make a significant change that is not just a one-time blip we need to have a long-term plan. You can't just say 'OK this month we're going to do a little bit of extra math,' that doesn't change a thing. For a change to embed itself in the culture of our schools it takes a long, mindful strategic plan. It takes changing practice, changing instructional strategies, changing our professional development,” Langohr said.

Although the trend is that the school district's third- through eighth-graders still outperform the state in math achievement, according to the 2018-19 Smarter Balanced Assessment results, overall, nearly half of test scores were not proficient. The district aims to close the gap.

“In math, when you compare scores, if you look at them side by side, obviously English language-arts scores are higher and have been for awhile. That's a reason we have made math a priority in the district,” Langohr said.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment designates students as “advanced,” “proficient,” “nearing proficient,” or “novice” in their understanding of a subject, based on their score.

In math, the percentage of student scores that were considered at, or above proficient by grade level was: 49% of third-graders; 50% of fourth-graders; 51% of fifth-graders; 50% of sixth-graders, 60% of seventh-graders and 50% of eighth-graders.

“This is not OK with us,” Langohr said pointing to a chart with the data. “That doesn't get us off the hook; we need to do a better job and we're doing that by an integrated approach.”

Professional development remains a priority at the elementary level as the district begins to use new kindergarten- through fifth-grade curriculum called Go Math. In addition to having an instructional math coach on board for the second year, the district brought in a Go Math representative trained in the curriculum and materials.

“She is helping us, making sure we are using the Go Math materials to the fullest,” Langohr said, so that teachers will learn how to use the materials to support varying levels of abilities from students who struggle to students who excel.

“I'm very optimistic that we're going to see some increases in our math scores,” Langohr said, once the professional development efforts take root in schools. “The teachers have done a really good job of embracing instructional strategies. They understand the importance of this work.”

This is the second year the district is using AIMSWeb, a brand of computerized test administration and scoring software, to monitor students' progress throughout the year. Students are tested in the fall, winter and spring. The results identify a student's specific strengths and deficiencies, informing teachers on how to plan future instruction, materials or interventions. The improved progress is evident as more students need less intervention.

“We're using it to help us to better understand the strengths and the opportunities for improvement with our students to see if they're growing academically throughout the school year,” Langohr said. “It's typically not wise to just take one assessment given on one day and decide that we're either a great school district or we're not a great school district. We use multiple assessments to hone in on areas of improvement and areas of strength.”

Schools also reflect on other data points that impact learning such as attendance and discipline.

English language arts remains an area where Kalispell Public Schools excel. The percentage of scores that were considered at, or above proficient by grade level includes: 56% third grade, 63% fourth grade, 66% fifth grade, 66% sixth grade, 77% seventh grade and 70% eighth grade.

As far as individual school performance, Kalispell Middle School was once again a standout in the highest percentages of advanced and proficient scores, which Principal Tryg Johnson highlighted in an email to parents in September.

“Last spring KMS students put forth great effort in the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) testing,” Johnson stated. “We have received the results of that testing and are proud of the results! Among Montana middle schools, we scored at the very top!”

Johnson later noted, as a staff, “we continue to be encouraged by these results, but we are also aware that we have work to do to increase our student achievement,” he said.

Fourth- and eighth-graders also take another standardized state test for science called MontCAS.

Results showed 70% of fourth-grade scores were considered proficient or advanced; 79% of eighth-graders scored at the proficient or advanced level. The percentages surpass the state, at 69%, in both grade levels.

“This is just part of the story to see how well our students are doing — where they're falling short and how to get them back on track,” Langohr said.

Langohr doesn't think a lag in math achievement is unique to the state.

“Math has some inherent challenges just from the get-go. We don't do enough work with professional development in math. The teacher prep programs in college don't spend enough time preparing teachers to teach math. The cultural thing is 'I don't like math. I'm not good in math,' there's a lot of hurdles to overcome, but we've decided to break through those hurdles and we're not using those as excuses in this district anymore,” she said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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