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Concern soars as North Whidbey Middle School scores plummet

When the Oak Harbor middle school administrators stood before the school board and presented their school improvement plans, the feedback was blunt and a sense of urgency filled the room. Changes need to be made. And quickly.

Most of the discussion on March 14 stemmed from North Whidbey Middle School’s test scores, which continue to plummet. The school’s improvement plan notes that the students’ scores in reading, math and writing are lower or significantly lower than state averages across the board.

Using seventh graders as a reference point, NWMS boasted a 75.9 percent passing rate in reading in 2004-2005, and saw only 53 percent pass in 2009-2010.

Math and writing follow the trend with percentages falling from 48.8 and 72.4 in 2005 to 32.3 and 40.9 in 2010.

Though there was a modest gain of 3 percent in eighth grade reading and 2 percent gain in science between 2008-2009 and last year, the rest of the passing percentages fell, many by at least 10 percent with seventh-grade writing seeing almost a 35 percent drop.

After reviewing a trend line of the middle school’s scores, the school board members expressed their disappointment.

“It is going in the wrong direction,” Dave McCool said. “This is heading south; I’m concerned. What are we going to do to turn this around?”

Though people have looked to the school’s demographic for answers (45.5 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch), Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon said that cannot account for the low scores.

“There’s a direct correlation between students on free and reduced lunch and student achievement for schools,” Gibbon said, but later continued, “what has raised our level of concern has been that when you look at schools with similar demographics statewide, North Whidbey is still underperforming, and that’s why it’s urgent.”

For example, Mcloughlin Middle School in Vancouver, Wash., has more than 70 percent of its students on discounted lunch, and yet beat out NWMS in every category, one by almost 29 percent, excluding eighth-grade science.

Just a few blocks south at Oak Harbor Middle School, where the free and reduced lunch rate was at 32.5 percent in 2010, test scores remain above state averages across the board. OHMS beat the NWMS passing percentages by 15 percent or more in every category but two.

“Free and reduced lunch doesn’t account for the discrepancy,” Gibbon said. “We certainly recognize that the students at North Whidbey can do better, and we’re going to be looking for solutions and ways to address that.”

Despite the fact that OHMS is on track with the state, board members seemed concerned with both of the middle schools’ performances. By 2014, the federal government will require every school to hit 100 percent passing rates in all grade levels in order to stay off the school improvement list.

“Twelve-hundred is far too important to let some of these students continue the way they have,” board member Pete Hunt said to the administrators regarding the roughly 1,200 middle school student population. “It is significant beyond the point of concern .... there is not a problem with the individuals at North Whidbey, I think there’s a system problem here. This is an urgent issue and excuses should not be offered, and we should not accept them, and neither should you.”

In the fact of such criticism, the building administrators said they’ve been working extremely hard to change the level of student and staff expectations at their schools. Teachers at both schools have been attending training and strategy sessions on early-release Mondays and have been working with math coaches and examining individual student test scores to better understand special needs.

North Whidbey principal Laura Aesoph said her goal is to hone in on effective instruction.

“We’re working on being more purposeful in any way we can,” Aesoph said, “not wasting time around bells, knowing the routine and what is expected.”

Both principals said teachers are tracking success-rates with certain lessons and will revisit those that students seem to struggle with. She said additionally, teachers are making sure each student is engaged by randomly calling on kids in class, having students continue to try after offering incorrect answers and showing accountability on group projects.

Aesoph said the teachers are invested now more than ever with student learning because every teacher is teaching more than one grade level and wants to see students progress year to year.

Both Aesoph and OHMS principal Shane Evans said they’re already seeing big changes in the attitudes and enthusiasm of both staff and students and expect improvements in this year’s test scores.

“We’re actually kind of excited to see what happens this year with MSP,” Aesoph said. “We feel pretty confident that we’re going to see some big changes.”

In a survey given to middle school students in 2010, only 17 percent of Oak Harbor Middle School students reported that their school has an intensive emphasis on high expectations regarding academic achievement and 5 percent reported that the school had an intensive emphasis on using extra time to offer extra help. At NWMS, the numbers were 24 and 11 percent.

Community Events, April 2014

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