Story last updated at 1:20 p.m. Saturday, August 31, 2002

Test results wide ranging

Area schools score highest

by Carey James and Jenni Dillon
Morris News Service-Alaska

By the end of the first two days of school, Homer High principal Ron Keffer was so hoarse he could barely talk. But his vocal strife wasn't due to reprimanding students back into line after a summer of freedom.

Instead, it was from cheering their praises.

Keffer, along with most other school principals in the Homer area, received a thick stack of test scores just before the start of the school year, and Homer High's students were among those to excel above national, state and borough averages in most categories.

"The first day of school we have these class meetings, and at each one of those, we talked about the scores," Keffer said. "We were pretty excited about it. The students feel good knowing they don't have to take a back seat to anybody."

Among the positive scores were the college entrance tests, the SATs and ACTs, in which Homer High students scored several points higher in each category as well as in composite scores.

For example, in the SATs, Homer High's mean score was 547 (out of 800), 28 points higher than the state average and 31 points higher than the national average.

Terra Nova scores for Homer High also came in well above average in every category, Keffer said, with the exception of two categories, in which local students tied.

"Overall, we scored better than 77 percent of schools in the nation, and that's compared to some private schools, and schools all over the spectrum," he said.

Keffer said the high scores are a testament to the entire education system in Homer, and are due, in large part, to parent involvement.

"The whole this is just so positive," Keffer said. "It's not just that Homer High does very well, this community works together for kids really well."

District score analysts agreed with Keffer.

"The Homer area traditionally scored very well, and that's a tribute to their schools and community. There's more than just any one thing that causes that," said Sam Stewart, director of secondary education for the district.

Students in all grade levels in the Homer area scored well above the district average. The following is a break down of the individual tests administered throughout the school year and a quick look at how the district, and Homer schools, ranked:

Terra Nova

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development required students in grades four, five, seven and nine to take the Terra Nova, or CAT/6, for the first time this year.

In the past, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has administered the CAT/5 -- a shorter, slightly less comprehensive test.

The three-hour Terra Nova tests students in reading, language arts and mathematics. Tests are scored by percentile. For example, a score of 60 means the student scored better than 60 percent of students taking the test nationwide. A score of 50 would be average.

The district averages for all three subjects at all four tested grade levels was above average -- ranging from 53 to 65.

Individual schools, however, ranked both better and worse than the district average.

In the Homer area, Nikolaevsk School, Voznesenka School and Connections, the district's homeschool program, each averaged below the 50th percentile in at least one subject for at least one grade. The small schools averages through the district also dropped below the 50th percentile in all subjects for the fifth, seventh and ninth grades.

Other schools showed exceptionally high average scores on the tests, though. McNeil Canyon Elementary had averages ranging from 63 to 80. West Homer Elementary scored a 72 in fourth-grade reading and a 70 in fifth-grade reading.

Ninilchik had a steady stream of scores in the high 60s and mid-70s, with the lowest average at 59 for seventh-grade language arts.

Homer Middle School pulled 80s in seventh-grade reading and math and a 75 in language arts. Homer High scored 75 in ninth-grade reading and math.

Analytic Writing Assessment (AWA)

The AWA, taken by students in grades five, seven and nine, is scored based on six traits: ideas and content, organization, voice and tone, word choice, sentence structure and writing conventions. Two raters score each paper from 1 to 5, then the two scores are averaged for a final score. The average score is 2.5, though the district aims for all students to score at least a 3.0.

The district's highest average was scored by seventh-graders at Homer Middle School, who averaged a 3.7. McNeil Canyon Elementary fifth-graders came in second with averages of 3.6.

The district averaged a 2.9 for fifth-graders and 3.0 for both seventh- and ninth-grade tests. No school in the district dropped below the 2.5 average, and most met or exceeded the 3.0 goal.

Alaska Benchmark Examination

Both the Alaska Benchmark and Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exams are state-mandated assessments testing reading, writing and mathematics. The Benchmarks are administered to students in grades three, six and eight. Students may start taking the HSGQE in grade 10. Scores from the 2001-02 HSGQE will be available in October.

The Alaska Benchmark is scored in proficiency levels. Students are ranked advanced, proficient, below proficient or not proficient by each subject.

The vast majority of students throughout the district ranked either advanced or proficient. In grade three, 80 percent of students were advanced or proficient in reading, 58 percent were advanced or proficient in writing, and 76 percent were advanced or proficient in math.

In grade six, 77 percent of students were advanced or proficient in reading, 81 percent in writing, and 70 percent in math.

In grade eight, 88 percent were advanced or proficient in reading and 73 percent in writing.

Eighth-grade math scores, however, hit a low spot in the assessment. Only 44 percent of eighth-graders in the district ranked advanced or proficient in math.

The test scoring index also includes a set of passing level scores for individual sub-skills within each subject. Eighth-graders in the district failed to meet these passing level scores for math skills. All other averages exceeded the passing level skills.

Stewart explained this anomaly by noting the scoring indexes for the different grade level tests were set up independently, meaning they do not naturally progress by year. Students may score high on math skills in third and sixth grades, then do poorly in eighth grade. It is a problem with the scoring system, not the students' education, he said.

"In my opinion, the grade eight math test is not an accurate assessment. Last year's ninth-graders had similar scores, but scored in the 68th percentile in math (on the Terra Nova)," he said. "The state needs to do some re-evaluating, in my opinion. I think they would tell you the same thing, and it's probably the next thing they'll tackle."

DIBELS/CBM

The DIBELS and CBM tests are given to students in kindergarten through third grade to measure basic skills in reading. Students are tested three times each year to determine whether they are on track for learning to read.

The tests measure younger students' ability to recognize letter sounds and older students' speed at reading.

"Basically, it's measuring their reading fluency -- how many words they read in a period of time -- to make sure they are on line in learning how to read," said Paula Christensen, the district's curriculum and assessment director of elementary education.

The district goals aim for students to read 40 words per minute by the spring of grade one, 90 words per minute by the spring of grade two, and 110 words per minute by the spring of grade three.

According to the 2001-02 spring test results, 71 percent of district kindergartners had established the necessary letter-sound skills. That score includes 100 percent of kindergartners passing at McNeil Canyon and 78 percent at Paul Banks Elementary.

By the end of the first grade, 96 percent of the district's students were proficient at identifying letter sounds, and 63 percent achieved the oral reading fluency goal of 40 words per minute.

Second- and third-graders are not tested on letter sound identification, only reading speed. Sixty-two percent of the district's second-graders and 65 percent of the district's third-graders reached their grade-level goals.

On the high end of the charts, 100 percent of Susan B. English School second-graders (there were four of them) met the goal.

Homer News reporter Carey James can be reached at cjames@homernews.com.

Jenni Dillon is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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