By Bethany Adams
TRUSSVILLE –In the 2013-14 school year, Alabama students began taking the ACT Aspire test which measured student progress in math and reading on a national scale. The initial scores were an awakening for state schools. Previous testing routinely produced high results from even struggling schools, but the ACT Aspire revealed Alabama students were woefully behind when measured nationally in terms of college and career readiness.
The third year of test results have now been released and show some local schools are still struggling, though showing progress. Other students, primarily in Trussville, have surged to among the best in the state.
This is the first of a three part series in which The Trussville Tribune will examine the test scores in area elementary, middle and high schools.
School Report: Elementary
The 2016 ACT Aspire scores were recently released, showing an overall increase in math scores across the state. ACT Aspire is an assessment test administered to students in grades 3-8, as well as tenth grade, which measures students’ proficiency levels in math, reading, science, English and writing.
On a statewide level, math scores came in at 59 percent at the third-grade level, 53 percent at fourth-grade and 45 percent at fifth grade. For reading scores, those numbers were 37, 41 and 36 percent. In local schools, teachers and principals are seeing how their students’ scores stack up and are working on ways to move forward.
While Chalkville Elementary’s third-grade math scores dropped from 47 percent to 32 percent in the 2014-2015 school year, both third-grade and fifth-grade scores rose this year. Third-grade scores increased to 38 percent, and fifth-grade scores rose from 30 to 35 percent, while those in the fourth-grade level dropped only slightly from 51 to 49 percent.
Principal Rod Johnson explained that staff members are working on methods to combat challenges like transiency through means such as academic coaches. “We’re one of those schools that has a third-grade reading coach who is working primarily with third-grade students to show that ARI [Alabama Reading Initiative] really does work,” Johnson said, referring to the fact that the funding for the program was reduced earlier this year.
In addition to the ARI coach, CES also has an instructional coach who works with grades K-5, focusing on both math and reading. The school also employs three “interventionists” who are tasked with identifying and providing extra assistance to children who struggle with certain subjects.
Johnson also explained that the school employs six additional teachers over those appointed by the state. “We’re a Title I school, and we use some of our Title I money to pay for additional teaching units,” Johnson said. “In other words, we try to keep our class sizes as low as we possibly can.”
Johnson said that he is already seeing improvements. “I’m proud of my school, I’m proud of my teachers, I’m proud of my students,” he said. “Obviously, there’s always room for improvement, and we’re going to continue to work on it.”
At Clay Elementary, third-grade math scores held at 65 percent proficient, which is two percent higher than the scores from the 2013-2014 year. In both fourth and fifth grade, math scores experienced a four-percent drop from 59 to 55 percent. However, they remained higher than their respective 2013-2014 scores of 47 and 46 percent.
Principal Sharon Gallant released a statement to the Tribune in support of the school’s students. “We’re extremely proud of our students for their math scores, because they are really above average,” she said. “They were excellent.”
Gallant did point out that there is “always room for improvement”, and that the school would continue to work toward that end. “And,” she added, “we always encourage our students to reach for the stars.”
At Johnson Elementary in Pinson, third-grade math scores continued to rise this year, coming in at 54 percent—a twelve-percent increase since the 2013-2014 year. Fourth-grade scores saw only a slight drop to 41 percent, which is up 14 percent from 2014.
Despite a drop in fifth-grade math results from 50 to 36 percent, Principal Christy Hamilton is optimistic about the future.
Hamilton is in her second year as principal after working as a teacher for Jacksonville City Schools, and she spent last year studying the elements that hinder the learning process. This year, she is taking what she found and working on ways to counteract the effects.
“We have really focused in on the standards,” Hamilton said, explaining that the school uses both Global Scholar Assessments and Compass Learning. “[W]e give the benchmark assessments three times a year so that we’ve got that baseline data, and then we can monitor the progress throughout the year,” she said. She explained that this allows teachers to emphasize areas in which students need extra attention.
In addition, Hamilton and the staff of Johnson are focusing on ways to keep children in the classroom by creating attendance incentives. “Because we know if the kids are not here, then they’re missing instruction,” she said. By increasing attendance levels, she hopes to maximize the amount of time that teachers and students spend together focusing on what counts.
While Paine Elementary’s fifth-grade math scores were the lowest in the school, they demonstrated the greatest increase from previous years. At 83 percent, they rose 22 percent from the previous school year. Third-grade scores rose from 82 to 86 percent, and fourth-grade from 74 to 88 percent. An increase in fourth-grade scores to 88 percent bumped the grade level from 131st in 2013-14 to 43rd place in the state in the 2014-2015 year and to 17th among all elementary schools in 2015-16.
As a school system, Trussville City Schools were among the best in the state, as well. TCS third graders ranked fourth in the state in reading and math, while fourth graders ranked second in math and fourth in reading. The fifth graders at TCS ranked fifth in reading and third in math among all school systems in Alabama.
Phyllis Faust is the System Testing Coordinator for Trussville City Schools, and she discussed ways that the school system is working to keep grades rising. “Collaboration is one thing,” she said, explaining that there are set times for teachers and principals to come together. “They may be looking at data, they may be looking at designing a lesson for an upcoming topic. It just depends on what the needs are for those teachers.”
In addition, teachers at Paine Elementary and the other Trussville City Schools are focused on changing the culture of the schools. “We don’t believe that testing is something that is to be just done and then forgotten,” Faust said. She explained that staff members focus on the standards for each grade level, rather than “teaching to the test”.
“If you teach it to fidelity and you are helping those kids to achieve mastery in those subjects, those test score are going to come,” she said.
By pinpointing challenges to the learning process and identifying new methods of keeping kids motivated, school officials are addressing scores that fall short and working to keep high scores climbing. Despite their different methods, principals and teachers in local communities are all focusing on their students’ needs and looking toward the future.