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Tom West: Moose Lake, Hermantown shine on state tests

If it does nothing else, releasing the results of the public school test scores for eighth-graders helps focus everyone's attention on the primary function of the public schools: to give every child the basic skills they need to function in adult...

If it does nothing else, releasing the results of the public school test scores for eighth-graders helps focus everyone's attention on the primary function of the public schools: to give every child the basic skills they need to function in adult life.
If adults spent as much time pressuring the English and math teachers to win with our kids as they do the basketball or hockey coach, our kids and our schools would be a lot further ahead.
In any case, we can sum up the results of this year's state tests as follows: Duluth School District -- better than last year, but still below average. Duluth's Washburn Edison School -- better than last year, but still below average, and below the Duluth Public Schools. Hermantown -- well above average, but slightly below last year. Proctor -- still better than average, but up in reading and down in math.
Statewide -- after eight years of schooling and being passed along through the grades, two out of 10 students can't read adequately and three out of 10 can't do basic math. About 135 non-public schools took the state test this year as well. On average, 12 percent more non-public students passed both the reading and math tests than did public school students.
Scores can fluctuate from year to year. But trends will emerge in a few years. Looking at the results from just the last two years, two Northland school districts come to the fore: Moose Lake and Hermantown are the only two school districts who had over 80 percent of their students pass both reading and math two years in a row.
The goal on this test is to have 100 percent passage. School officials often make excuses for their school's results, but the tests aren't going away, and more school districts are taking them seriously.
The public schools are about universal education, which is why students get five chances to pass the test. If they fail in eighth grade, they can try again in ninth grade, etc. If they still haven't passed in 12th grade, they won't get a diploma. In many cases, that can result in a life of poverty and deprivation. That's serious.
In Moose Lake, Superintendent of Schools Nancy Kaldor said that her district did not take the test seriously at first. After the first year's results, however, Moose Lake implemented a mandatory reading course for all seventh-graders, a student-on-student tutoring program and used some Assurance of Mastery grant monies to provide additional instruction for those students having trouble. If a student fails either the math or reading portion of the test, they have to take a course in that area the next year. The reading course has changed, as well. It's not just a literature course but involves using more materials that a person will use as an adult -- like newspapers.
Interest in the test scores is now so high in Moose Lake, Kaldor said, the eighth-graders were on the Internet looking up the results even before the administration was notified by the state. Last year, when the reading test passage rate jumped from 74 percent to 91 percent, and the math passage rate jumped from 73 percent to 80 percent, the school held a pizza party to celebrate. This year, the reading rate dropped to 86 percent, but the math rate went up to 83 percent. Individually, each rate was the fourth best in northeastern Minnesota, but combined they were the best. Kaldor ordered more pizza.
In Hermantown, Superintendent Jon Holets attributed his district's success to nothing more than "great kids, committed and involved parents, dedicated and hard-working teachers," a well-organized curriculum and a good school board.
Neither Moose Lake nor Hermantown is resting on its laurels. Both have implemented new elementary math programs in the last few years, although this year's eighth-graders did not study under the new programs. Other districts would do well to talk to them to see if there are ways to improve their own schools.
As much as some educators may dislike the standardized tests, they are important to the entire community. Over the years, more parents will be looking at these test scores when they determine where they are going to live, whether or not to take a new job in a community, and in some cases whether or not to keep their children in the public schools.
Fans of public education need to recognize this and push their school districts to improve the passage rate. Nobody should find it acceptable if a third of their district's students, no matter what their socioeconomic class, can't do math or a quarter can't read.
Tom West is the executive editor of the Budgeteer News.

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