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DL 'star' ratings bring joy, consternation

Three years ago, Roosevelt Elementary School in Detroit Lakes received a "three star" rating for its state reading and math assessment test (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, or MCA) results.

A "three star" rating means that a school is meeting state standards for "adequate yearly progress," or AYP.

But according to Jerry Hanson, principal of Roosevelt Elementary, that star rating was "a low three and three."

"We were very close to a 2 (star rating)," he added. Schools receiving a 2-star rating in either reading or math are considered to not be meeting AYP standards.

"It (a 2-star rating) is kind of a slap on the wrist from the state," Hanson said. The teaching staff at Roosevelt "took that 3-and-3 rating very personally," he added. "They have just worked their butts off for three years to really make some changes that were better for the kids."

That hard work has paid some very nice dividends this year. When the Minnesota Department of Education released its "school report cards" for 2006, Roosevelt had cause to celebrate: there were five stars next to its name in both reading and math.

"There were only 78 schools in the state (out of all elementary, middle/junior and high schools) that had five stars in both math and reading," Hanson said.

Meanwhile, over at Rossman Elementary, there was also cause to celebrate: The school received four stars in both reading and math.

Lowell Niklaus, acting superintendent for Detroit Lakes, noted that while at first glance, Roosevelt students might appear to be performing better academically than those at Rossman, the difference in star ratings was caused by factors other than just the test scores themselves.

"Roosevelt and Rossman had very similar test scores overall," he said.

The difference lies in the demographic makeup of the two schools. Roosevelt's percentage of students qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program is significantly higher than Rossman's.

Sandy Nelson, principal of Rossman Elementary School, said that about 35 percent of his school's students qualify for free and reduced lunch, as opposed to 45 percent for Roosevelt.

What this means is that Roosevelt qualifies for an additional star that Rossman is not eligible to receive.

All schools judged to be meeting AYP standards receive a three-star rating in both reading and math. But there are additional criteria under which one or two extra stars may be awarded.

Because Rossman had a lower percentage of F&R lunch students, it was assessed against a different group of schools than Roosevelt. If they had both been assessed against the same pool of schools, both Nelson and Hanson believe Rossman probably would have received the fifth star too.

Niklaus agreed.

"I don't want to diminish Roosevelt's accomplishment, but both those schools are very close in how they're performing overall," he said. "All things being equal, I feel both schools would have had five stars."

Nelson also feels that similar consideration ought to be given to schools with a higher percentage of special education students.

"Special ed learners take as much effort (to educate) as those on free and reduced lunches," he said.

At the same time, Nelson said Roosevelt's staff has every reason to feel proud of the school's accomplishment.

"I don't want to take anything away from them," he added. "Getting five stars... that's fantastic."

"Do we (at Rossman) think the star system means something? Yes," Nelson continued. "We absolutely want to be a five-star school, because that's what we are in our minds. We don't take it lightly when we don't get five stars. But we do want to celebrate that we got four."

"The underlying theme here is that the parents of elementary students in this district ought to feel really good about the education their children have been getting," Hanson said.

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement.

The school district's ultimate goal, Nelson said, is to have all its students -- regardless of whether they are on free and reduced lunches, have special learning needs, or face other challenges -- be 100 percent proficient in both reading and math.

"We're doing a good job, but we will all continue to work until we reach the goal of 'no child left behind," he added. "That's why we're in business."

And that's why Detroit Lakes High School is under closer scrutiny this year. Though the school received a three-star rating in math, its reading scores came up a little short, with a two-star rating.

What this means, according to High School Principal Steve Morben, is that two of the nine demographic subgroups under which MCA-II results are assessed did not meet AYP standards in reading.

Even if a school's overall scores are in line with state and federal standards, if even one of the nine subgroups fails to meet AYP, the school cannot receive a rating higher than two stars.

"When we compare how we did -- our average scale score for all kids -- with other districts around the state... we did fine," Morben said. "We did not make (AYP) with either our Native American or free and reduced lunch students in 10th grade reading (which is the grade level at which MCA-II reading tests are currently administered)."

While this is a concern, Morben and Niklaus both feel that at least part of the problem is due to the fact that the MCA-II tests are not currently a part of the district's graduation standards -- as in, students do not have to perform well on the tests to graduate.

"We really need to emphasize to the kids that while these tests don't count toward graduation at the present time, how they perform is a reflection of our schools (overall)," Niklaus said. "These are not timed tests, yet statewide, 30 percent of these tests are not completed (i.e., some questions are left blank). That's a possible indicator that they're not giving it their best shot."

"In all honesty, I don't believe we are a two-star school," Morben said. "We out-performed several three, four and even five-star schools in some areas. But we did not meet AYP in those two areas."

"We need to address what messages we're sending as a school, and how to get those messages out to those population groups (that didn't meet AYP). That's our challenge now."

Once the state assessment tests start counting toward graduation requirements -- as it will for students who entered ninth grade this year -- Morben believes it will no longer be an issue. But for now, "We have to find a way to make the kids care about these tests and see that it's important to them... it's somewhat of a pride thing."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454