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Testing...testing...1, 2, 3: DL schools facing tough achievement gap

Though the Detroit Lakes School District is struggling with an achievement gap due to a high number of special-needs students and students receiving free-and-reduced lunch, they're still testing well, just slightly below state average. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons1 / 2
Standardized tests are just a "snapshot" in time, allowing teachers to see where their students are and where they need to be. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons2 / 2

The Tribune has covered the topic before: the Detroit Lakes School District has a much higher percentage of special-needs students than state average. They also have a high number of students living in poverty. But what does that mean? Well, for one, it means teachers are working that much harder to get standardized test results where they need to be for state standards.

Test results fluctuate from year to year, which is why Director of Education Renee Kerzman says it's hard to just cold-compare results from year to year--that doesn't tell educators much.

"It's just a snapshot in time," said Kerzman, adding that they use the results over time to pinpoint problem areas that they need to focus on improving.

For most of the MCA's categories (math, reading, and science), the district was just barely below state average, with science being the exception, the area where students tested well above state average.

Math, however, seems to be the toughest subject for students in the district, according to the MCA results, particularly in the sixth grade, and Kerzman says that because they have been able to pinpoint that area as problematic, they are now taking a look at their curriculum and changing it to better meet the students' needs.

The good news for the district is that the ACT results from the high schoolers show that the students are catching up in math and still graduating where they need to be according to state standards.

A gap in achievement

More than just the overall subject-to-subject struggles, though, the biggest issue that MCA results pinpoint is the achievement gap that doesn't seem to be getting any smaller.

Kerzman was quick to say that she never wants to pinpoint one student demographic or group of teachers for bringing results down. However, the achievement gap shows that there simply are just students who need more specialized interventions to keep up and, while this issue doesn't show signs of going away across the state, it's a prominent issue in the Detroit Lakes district--and in one school in particular: Roosevelt Elementary.

While the entire district has a higher number of special-needs students (21.3 percent as compared to the state's 15.4 percent), Roosevelt Elementary houses the most students who are receiving free-and-reduced lunch (52.3 percent at Roosevelt compared to 39.9 percent in the whole district).

For that reason, Kerzman and her team has decided to introduce some new strategies at Roosevelt this year, namely, a method known as looping.

Looping means students will have the same teacher for two years in a row, allowing them to build a stronger relationship with their educator and, hopefully, do better in school because of it.

Kerzman says that research suggests that students living in poverty benefit from this teaching method because it allows them to become more comfortable with their instructors (perhaps making them feel safer to ask questions), and it also allows the teachers to pinpoint which students need help and then gives them that extra time to help the student.

The issue there, though, is the teacher shortage, which Kerzman says could be playing a factor in low test scores and, ultimately, the achievement gap.

With many teachers--not just those teaching the "high-need" areas--in and out year to year, and other positions seemingly impossible to fill, particularly those special education positions, students just always aren't able to build relationships with their teachers like they could be, a perfect storm making it tough to keep those test scores up. Though, all things considered, Kerzman said she's proud of where the district is test-wise, and they're going to continue doing everything they can to get their scores up and keep them there.

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