Elementary school develops improvement plan

After a year of improvements in state standardized test scores, Milaca Elementary School administration had hoped it would leave its “Focus School” rating, given by the Minnesota Department of Education, in the past.

Scores recently released by the state from students taking such tests last year, however, did not show enough improvement to release the school from its rating.

The rating of “Focus School” pertains to the bottom 10 percent of schools taking Title I funds with the largest achievement gaps.

“We still have to decipher which population caused the achievement gap,” Principal Steve Voshell said. “We need to write a school improvement plan, which we did anyway, and for the next two years we have to reduce the achievement gap and continue to focus on math and reading.”

To that end, the state has assigned a school advocate from the Centers of Excellence to help Milaca Elementary School identify that demographic and to implement the school improvement plan, which is a mandatory statement schools with focus ratings must complete.

Voshell has taken a few educated guesses as to what could be some driving factors behind the school’s performance.

“It looks like it was our reading scores that put us into that focus rating,” he said.

The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, or MCA, has once again raised the bar. The test administered last year was vastly different from the one issued in previous years. Milaca’s reading score dropped from a proficiency level of 80.1 in reading in 2012 to 58.8 percent last year, while the state’s average scores also dropped.

This isn’t the first time standardized test scores have labeled the school with a less than stellar grade, however. As a Focus School last year, Milaca Elementary set out to develop a school improvement plan and witnessed substantial increases in its testing data last year.

“Our scores were improving and we were told last year that if we were in our second year (under the focus rating), that we would be removed from that list,” Voshell said.

The improvement plan calls for a focus on reading comprehension strategies and a renewed emphasis on visual representation strategies in math – in other words, teaching students how to use math tools.

“I’m also encouraging all students to read at home every day,” Voshell said. “That would be huge.”

In the past, the Minnesota Department of Education used a measurement called Adequate Yearly Progress to rate schools. Districts that failed to show they had met their AYP goals were given scores like “needs improvement” and could face funding penalties. That system has been replaced by the Focus School and Priority School ratings. Priority Schools are those performing in the bottom 5 percent of districts statewide.

“In the past, you were given a certain score and you knew what you had to do,” Voshell said. “Now, it’s a moving target.”

Today, schools are trying to perform at the least better than the bottom 10 percent to avoid a negative rating. But, as percentages go, there will always be a bottom 10 percent.

However the state decides to score its districts, Voshell said he’s confident Milaca Elementary can and will improve.

“We’re always committed to getting better. The fact that MDE is taking this approach doesn’t matter to us. We’re going to do that anyway,” Voshell said. “Our strategies are focusing on all students, because we know if all kids improve, the MDE ratings will take care of themselves.”