District says students are priority not test scores

This years Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores were officially released last week. The Minnesota Department of Education said “Overall, scores showed little change from last year. Math scores decreased slightly for some grade levels and remained constant for others, and reading scores remained largely the same.”

Largely, science scores went down statewide and in the Watertown Mayer School district from last year.

Statewide 54.2 percent of students in Minnesota schools showed proficiency in 2017, down from 55 percent in 2016. The middle schools scores in science did go up from 55.9 percent proficiency to 63.6 percent from 2016 to 2017.

In Watertown-Mayer High School, test scores showed that 56.4 percent of students were proficient in science, down from 65.1 percent in 2016. The elementary school showed that 61.8 students were proficient in science, compared to 65.9 percent proficiency last year.

There is one thing every school in the district has in common – its scores are significantly above the state averages. The only number that is below the state average is the high school’s proficiency in math. The state scored at 58.7 percent and Watertown Mayer High School scored 52.5 percent.
Though the school district isn’t as concerned with scores as much as success of students elsewhere.

“These tests are not the only mark of what kids learn, you can’t tell the climate and culture from these tests,” said the Watertown Mayer High School Principal Bob Hennen. “Kids are doing a lot of things tests can’t measure.”
Hennen has a similar message as the Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. She said, “Test scores are just one part of the picture to understand how students are doing in Minnesota. There’s more to providing a student with a well-rounded education than can be seen in a test. I am proud of our students, and of the teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, support staff and many others working every day to help every student succeed.”

However test scores did go up in some areas from last year. The high school’s reading proficiency was almost 14 points higher than last year coming in at 65.4 percent for 2017, and is higher than the state’s proficiency of 60.2 percent. A statistic Hennen said is a positive and helpful to know.

A different number, Hennen is interested in as well is the number of athletes in Watertown. He said almost 80 percent of their students are in sports.

“I’d be more concerned if they were less involved,” he said.

The Watertown Mayer School District is making a few changes this year. It is their first year of their two-year plan which is moving grades to different schools and prioritizing different things from an older era of learning.

For example, the high school is implementing an alternative learning program. The district says it is designed to increase learning opportunities for students. Hennen said this next year he wants to focus more on college classes,technology and trade skills.

“We’re shifting our focus to the growth in students and how they relate to other people,” said superintendent Ron Wilke.

Hennen said the more individualized college classes the students are interested that the school offers will help them get ready for life after college. That’s a concept Wilke and middle school principal Nick Guertin want to emphasize as well – as opposed to test scores.

“We were not surprised at our results, we see an up and down every year but for the most part our scores remain flat,” Guertin said. “We want more of a focus on a framework for 21st century learning.

Guertin said he wants to reestablish a fresher approach in his school. He said the state has taken this same test for five years and the results are not what the department of ed. wants to see.

“The kids spend about eight hours a spring taking these tests and it’s rough, they’re not excited,” he said.

Wilke said reading is their number one priority so he is happy with the scores. Reading proficiency in the middle and elementary school is down from last year but higher than the state’s average. The elementary school scored 69.6 percent and the middle school is seven points higher than the state at a 67.7 percent reading proficiency.

“For kids to take a test is one approach for students to demonstrate their knowledge,” Wilke said. “A better way is for them to apply their learning in real life.”

Guertin said this year is new for the middle school. It is the first year of the Bring Your Own Device Program. The students can bring in their own tablets to learn on.

“We’re emphasizing a life and media skills focus, we will continue to meet state standards” he said.

He said that electronics are a huge distraction for everyone in everyday life, so having that in school will be a challenge. Guertin said the best way to change is that is by having students learn with them and change the narrative of what technology is used for.

“Everyone in my middle school now is in the Z-Generation, they are the first generation that has grown up with smart tools since birth,” he said.

Guertin said the goal is to discipline kids against the white noise of electronics. He said teachers will have to recalibrate and it will be a challenge for them as well.

Teachers are another focus Wilke wants to work on this year. He said for kids to better learn how to be independent learners and find what they need teachers will have to know better how to facilitate that. He said it will go beyond standardized tests.

Independence is something Guertin wants his middle-schoolers to know. His goal is for his students to be able to identify their own needs and advocate for themselves before high school.

“We want them to have their own problem solving skills – it’s about them developing grit and perseverance” he said.

Guertin said the report card he is most concerned about is the student’s social, emotional and behavioral report cards.

“We still always want to get better, we still always want to improve – there’s a fine line between good practices and test prep,” Hennen said. “Maybe this year the students will have a better attitude about the test and that will benefit us, but that’s not what our classes are about.”