HANCOCK COUNTY — Scores countywide on the state’s key standardized test continue to exceed the statewide average, but educators remain as vexed as parents about how to reach a group that generally lagged behind other grades on the exam: middle schoolers.
The Indiana Department of Education on Monday released statewide results on the ISTEP test from the 2013-14 school year. The scores get a lot of attention because they are used in determining everything from a school’s overall performance to teachers’ effectiveness ratings.
Generally, scores in Hancock County barely budged from a year earlier. Overall, passing rates for math and English/language arts ranged from 75 percent to 81 percent across all the school districts for grades 3 through 8. The statewide average was 74.7 percent.
A closer look at the numbers, however, shows a dropoff in performance once children reach middle school. Sixth-graders in seven out of eight schools countywide, for example, posted lower scores than those a year younger. In some cases, the pass rate for both math and English/language arts was as much as 20 percentage points lower.
The problem is not new. Administrators perennially grapple with the best way to reach students as they approach a difficult age.
“Our biggest problem in the combined result was in the English/language arts area,” said Jim Bever, principal of Greenfield Intermediate School, whose sixth-graders posted a pass rate of 73.6 percent. “We were very disappointed by that performance, and to be honest, we are not exactly sure what the problem was.”
Bever and other administrators are pondering what they can do. At GIS, for example, “One of the underlying factors was a transition in the instructional material,” Bever said. “We were in a new type of textbook last year, and I don’t know that we addressed it properly last year.”
Greenfield-Central schools raised their overall scores from 76 percent to 78 percent. Assistant superintendent Ann Vail said it marks the third straight year over-all ISTEP scores have improved.
However, the middle-school scores show much room for improvement. Only 71 percent of last year’s Maxwell Intermediate sixth-graders passed English.
Mt. Vernon’s assistant superintendent, Mike Horton, said he was pleased with progress made by elementary schools. The middle school students’ performance, however, was another matter.
“I think we have some situations there where we need to take a look at,” he said, noting that only 70 percent of Mt. Vernon Middle School eighth-graders passed both parts of the test.
“Sometimes, it’s just a group of kids that goes through, but in this case, I think it was something structurally,” Horton said.
Eastern Hancock’s sixth-graders turned in the county’s lowest combined ISTEP results, with a passing rate of 63.5 percent for both parts of the test. But to Principal Dave Pfaff, that’s not the right metric to measure.
“We don’t worry about that percentage of total students passing both,” Pfaff said. “We worry about the percentage of students passing English and the percentage of students passing math. We like to take it down a step further.”
The breakdown shows EH sixth- and seventh-graders need help in English, where only 64 percent and 65 percent passed, respectively.
“We always go over these results with the teachers, and we tear them down,” Pfaff said. “But, there’s not any one thing we can point to and say our teachers did a bad job with.”
He said educators will now offer those students who struggled in English two classes geared toward sharpening their reading and writing skills.
Rhonda Peterson, Southern Hancock’s director of curriculum, said the transition from elementary school to middle school is fraught with change.
“Those are tough years,” she said. “Kids are going through many types of personal and social changes, and so to keep scores up during those times is something to be proud of.”
Peterson noted other changes are on the horizon in the test itself, which means things won’t get any easier.
With the passage of the new Indiana College and Career Readiness State Standards, ISTEP testing this year will be very different.
“We’re going to be asking teachers to teach in a different way,” Peterson said. “We’re going to be asking students to explain why more and not just pick or give us an answer.