NEWPORT, Mich. - In first grade, students at North Elementary learn to fill in the circles on standardized tests. By third grade, they're playing around on a computer program that teaches them how to find the right answers and watch out for the tricky choices that look right at first glance.
The work has paid off. Fourth graders at the Monroe County school posted the highest scores in southeast Michigan on the math portion of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), the statewide proficiency test. In reading, the school was third of the 53 area schools.
State education officials and leaders from some schools who are excelling at the test say those who succeed prepare for the exam. They rewrite their lesson plans to match with what the state expects kids to know. And they give students the confidence so they can beat the MEAP.
“It breaks down the feeling of, `Oh my gosh, the test.' I think what [students] are aware of is we're teaching them life skills,” said Tim Fitzpatrick, North Elementary principal and assistant superintendent for the Jefferson school district. “Our kids took this all as a point of pride.”
Certainly, wealth and other advantages help, too.
A Blade analysis of fourth-grade MEAP scores shows that, like in Ohio, schools in Michigan with lower poverty rates generally fare better.
For example, of the 487 schools that scored in the top quarter of the state in math, 63 per cent were schools in the highest two income groups. Only 91, or 19 per cent, of the schools in the two lowest income groups ranked in the top quarter of schools passing the math portion of the MEAP.
Results were similar in reading, where 65 per cent of the top scores were from schools in the two top income brackets.
But that does not mean poverty begets failure. Among the numbers are stories of hard-earned success, of schools where more than three-fourths of the pupils qualify for free or reduced lunches. Their scores are among the best in the state.
In the Detroit city schools, 21 high-poverty schools were among the top 25 per cent in the state in math scores, and 16 were in the top quarter in reading.
In southeast Michigan results were mixed.
Of 53 schools, 33 ranked in the bottom half of the state in math. When compared to schools in similar income levels, 38 southeast Michigan schools scored in the bottom half of their respective categories.
There were similar results in reading, with 32 schools ranking in the bottom half of the state and 37 schools with scores lower than at least half of schools with similar income rankings.
Kathy Malnar is the superintendent of Hudson Area Schools. She said raising the test scores at Hudson, where 59 per cent of students were proficient in math and 54 per cent were proficient in reading in 1999, was a priority for her.
“It was no news to anyone,” she said. “Our scores were not where we wanted them to be. We are absolutely focusing on improving teaching and instruction.”
That includes reviewing the curriculum and making sure it is consistent from kindergarten through high school. Little changes, like making sure geometry terms - like rectangle or quadrilateral - are consistent will make a big difference, she said.
“By that I don't mean all teachers should be teaching on page 43 of the math book by April 27. Teaching is an artistic event and we certainly want to capitalize on that,” she said. “But I've got students in my classrooms who feel like they're starting over every year.”
Not all school administrators, teachers, and parents agree on the best way for schools to improve on the MEAP and educate students. Schools who have succeeded at the MEAP and others who are struggling have said there is no one magic pill that will help all schools.
The Michigan department of education doesn't have statewide programs to give struggling schools guidance. Spokesman Brad Wurfel said it's up to each district to find a way to teach its students according to their needs.
“The downside from the state level is we often have not a clue to the details of what's happening at a local school,” he said. “The state department of education uses MEAP as a means of benchmarking a school's alignment with the curriculum.”
Michigan's proficiency tests, which started in 1969, were not designed to be a benchmark by which all schools are compared and marketed to the public.
“It is a single indicator. There are many indicators,” Mr. Wurfel said.
But in recent years, schools have been forced to compete for students, largely because of choice programs that allow parents to enroll their children in other districts without paying tuition. Parents, the media, and the public were looking for a way to tell how one school measured up to the next.
Real estate developers started touting a district's MEAP scores when showing off a neighborhood. Parents used the tests to pick the best public school in the county. The media ranked schools from highest score to lowest. And the state has threatened to swoop in and take over any district where students' scores lag behind.
MEAP mattered. And some districts, such as Jefferson, started taking another look at how they were doing.
“We were fighting the test because we didn't appreciate that our school was being held up to one day and one test, and did not consider what we were doing the other 179 days,” said North Elementary principal Mr. Fitzpatrick. “I had a bad attitude about it.”
But Jefferson officials knew the test was important. So 12 years ago, they threw away their thick curriculum books and replaced them with short, easy-to-read guides that set clear goals for each grade that parents and teachers could read. The district rethought what it was teaching and lined up its curriculum with what the state wanted students to learn.
Second grade teachers who taught kids about dinosaurs, for example, were told to abandon those brontosaurus lessons if they could not be tied into to broader teachings on social studies or science, something students would need for the test.
MEAP became a focus from kindergarten on up. Students knew it. Teachers knew it. The school would hold a pep rally before the test where younger students would cheer on the fourth graders. Banners on the wall proclaimed the students' success.
And parents would hear about it too.
“They talk to you from the early grades. They show you how the tests are averaged, how the kids are doing,” said Kendy Dague, who has two kids in the Jefferson district, including one at North Elementary.
Scores in the district quickly climbed to some of the highest among schools in the same income level and districts across the state. In 1996, North Elementary, which has about 450 students this year, became the first school in Monroe County to receive full state accreditation. They have stayed at that level every year since then.
To earn full accreditation, the school had to achieve 66 per cent passage rates in each area of the test, according to Paul Bielawski, supervisor for school instruction and accountability at the Michigan Department of Education.
“You've got some obviously outstanding schools in that district,” he said.
Jefferson does not have some of the problems that schools in low-income neighborhoods have. Tax money from the Fermi II nuclear power plant contribute to the fact that Jefferson received more than $10,000 per student in the 1998-99 school year, well over the state average of $6,065. North Elementary benefits from new computers and a large, 10-year old school that looks more like an office complex.
Mr. Fitzpatrick said he does not think those advantages should be used to explain away success. His students have had problems, too, and it was through hard work that students earned high MEAP scores, he said.
“The hardest part was the mindset,” he said.
Patsy Burks, principal of Owen Elementary just southwest of downtown Detroit, agrees. At her school, 81 per cent of the students receive free or reduced-priced lunches. The elementary is set among vacant lots, and the doors are locked at all times.
Yet Owen fourth graders have consistently scored above most Michigan schools. Maybe students would learn easier if they had fewer problems at home or the school had more money, but Owen's teachers encourage the children and teach them what the state thinks students should know. And that makes them succeed, teachers said.
“We teach children they have two sides: strong and weak. We want to use our strong side all the time,” she said.