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Teachers need more time to study students' tests

SPANISH FORK — Amid the flurry of legislation and money aimed at improving education, Mark Bake is afraid one important element is underappreciated — time.

The curriculum specialist for testing in the Nebo School District, Bake understands the importance of tests mandated by federal and state lawmakers and the money spent on administering them — and then providing the data to school districts.

The problem begins, he said, when the school district shares the information with teachers. Bake and other officials can provide the data, but there is little opportunity for the teachers to effectively analyze it in productive groups.

"That's the real challenge, to find time to get teachers together and discuss best practices and common holes in their teaching," Bake said. "Teaching is a lonely profession. Teachers are in their classrooms all day. They might not see another adult some days. The question is, how can we increase those opportunities to share experiences and ideas?"

The Nebo district, which stretches from Springville to Goshen, took a new tack this school year. When teachers came back from summer vacation, they spent a couple of days meeting and discussing the results of the state core test taken in spring 2002.

"We gave them a chance to sit down in groups — by grade levels in elementary schools and by subject in secondary schools," Bake said. "They were able to discuss where we hit and where we miss and discuss goals we can set to improve. Our goal is to use and analyze the test results to inform instruction."

One area of discussion is high school math. The district's three high schools — Payson, Spanish Fork and Springville — have dismal-looking math test scores.

For example, just 4.7 percent of students who took the math test at Spanish Fork High School performed in the mastery range. A little more than 31 percent fell in the near-mastery category. That means 64 percent scored in the partial-mastery or minimal-mastery ranges.

Payson and Springville had only slightly better scores. Comparatively, the two high schools in Provo School District — Timpview and Provo — had about 60 percent of their math students scoring in the upper two ranges, as did Orem's Timpanogos High School.

However, four other high schools in the Alpine School District — Lehi, Lone Peak, Mountain View and Orem — scored worse than the Nebo schools, and Pleasant Grove High School had scores similar to Nebo.

But Bake said those state core test scores shouldn't be used for comparison the way Stanford Achievement Test scores are.

Deseret News graphic

Nebo Test Scores

Requires Adobe Acrobat.

"What we don't want is to get in the business of with this end-of-level testing is comparing our scores to other schools," he said. "These tests are only good for comparison to the core curriculum. The objective is not to keep up with other schools or other districts, it's to keep up with the core. We've made progress the last three years. Our scores are steadily rising. We're headed in the right direction."

In fact, Nebo's high school math scores are in line with state averages and its district-wide overall scores are better than the state average.

Bake said the district's high school math scores tell a number of stories about secondary math throughout the state. One is that both the math and the tests get tougher as students get older. This theory is proved by scores across the state. Second, many of the best math students take advanced math in junior high school. This, Bake said, is why junior high algebra scores look better than high school algebra scores; the best algebra students took the class in junior high.

There is room for improvement, Bake said. Nebo principals are stressing greater teacher accountability for test scores. They also are working with teachers to determine if textbooks match what the state is testing. They want teachers to determine what the core, critical skills are and then build their courses around those.

Said Bake, "We want to eliminate all factors that get in the way of kids showing what they know."