Testing results at Mars on track

Officials look at ways to progress

February 8, 2020 Cranberry Local News

ADAMS TWP — Mars Area School District's testing statistics are mostly maintaining course, according to a data review presentation Thursday night.

Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth McMahon told the school board and district officials the presentation provided an opportunity for the district to analyze its testing progress over time.

“We're trying to look at the past five years in a nutshell,” McMahon said. “Data look different in different places.”

“On the outside, we appear to be performing at the highest level,” said Kara Eckert, director of curriculum. “What we're sharing tonight was the assessment that was taken last spring.”

According to information provided by the district, Mars Area is the top-ranked district in Butler County and ranks 10th of 100 schools in Western Pennsylvania when it comes to testing. The district ranked 32nd of 493 Pennsylvania schools that took the PSSAs and Keystone Exams from 2017 to 2019.

Things have stayed mostly status quo, according to Eckert.

Although it's not standardized, testing begins in the district at the primary center level. Kindergarten students are tested on phoneme segmentation fluency, or their ability to break down words by letter sounds.

“We're teaching them how to chop out the sound,” McMahon said.

In 2018-19, 74 percent of kindergartners tested at or above target. This year's kindergartners are well on their way to reaching or beating that percentage, McMahon said. A mid-year assessment of students shows 58 percent of them are already “above the benchmark.”

First-graders are tested on “nonsense word fluency.” They're expected to read the whole word to show they both understand individual and combined letter sounds.

About 49 percent of first-grade students are above target for 2019-20, McMahon said. She credits the district's decision to purchase curriculum through the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness program.

“We got the biggest bang for our buck with Heggerty,” McMahon said. “Heggerty's really helping our little ones.”

Math scores trail English

McMahon said math scores are behind English scores due to a lack of staff continuity. Still, she said primary center students are also surpassing state expectations when it comes to counting, multiplying and dividing.

Elementary principal Todd Lape presented an analysis of third- and fourth-grade PSSA test scores for English/language arts, math and science.

Lape said he wanted to focus on the areas of testing that were in the middle of proficient or below, scoring less than 60 percent.

Two areas of concern in ELA testing, according to Lape, are sentence structure and text-dependent analysis.

“A lot of these, there's only one question asked,” Lape said. “So if half the kids miss one ... then, you know, you're going to get 50 percent.”

In math, students scored lower in areas of algebraic thinking, and number and operations in bases of 10.

Fourth-graders also take PSSAs in science. Lape told the board nine of the points on the science PSSA are on biology.

“In fourth grade, they don't hit anything in biology,” Lape said.

“You get to fifth grade, one of those big words — 'apply' — comes into play,” said Adam Kostewicz, principal of Mars Area Centennial School.

Eighty-two percent of fifth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the ELA PSSAs in 2019.

Among sixth-graders, 85 percent scored proficient or advanced in ELA and 65 percent in math.

Centennial teachers are charged with introducing writing rubrics. This helps fifth-graders learn how to write in preparation for sixth grade, Kostewicz said.

“I'm hoping that small connection right there is going to help with the writing,” Kostewicz said. “Not only for the test, but for grades to come.”

Middle school results

Middle school principal Todd Kolson said students in grades seven and eight have a heavy test load. Students in eighth grade take the PSSAs and Keystone Exams, which are issued as end-of-course assessments.

“I have the most-tested kids in the district,” Kolson said, “especially eighth-graders.”

One of Kolson's biggest areas of concern is algebra in math testing. Algebra is also a Keystone Exam.

Mars' sixth-grade students are studying pre-algebra in preparation for seventh grade. Kolson said seventh-grade math is now algebra, which doesn't necessarily incorporate PSSA math.

The situation is not unique in Pennsylvania, according to district officials. State testing does not always align with standard math curriculum levels.

PSSA math scores are lower at the middle school level. About 63 percent of students in seventh grade were at or above proficient in 2019. Only 48 percent were at or above proficient in eighth grade.

“I believe that we're going to have more concerns when we take a look at our '20 data,” Kolson said. “I hate standing here in front of you looking at a 48 (percent).”

Kolson said he is concerned the district isn't “spiraling in” enough testing topics with regular curriculum.

Still, he and Eckert said having advanced math opportunities is important for the district. Having seventh-graders take algebra helps to target students who are above average in core curriculum.

“They are at an advanced rate,” Eckert said. “It's a disservice to those 25, 30 kids if we don't allow them to explore that level.”

More than 90 percent of eighth-grade students were at or above proficient in algebra in 2019. There were no below basic students last year.

High school results

High school is where the district begins to see algebra testing catch up to standardized testing, Principal Lindsay Rosswog said.

Keystone Exams in Mars are tied to ninth-grade curriculum.

About 42 percent of ninth-grade students were at or above proficient in algebra in 2019.

Keystone Exams also test on biology. About 84 percent of district ninth-graders were at least proficient in 2019. Literature was passed by about 90 percent of students.

Rosswog also discussed Advanced Placement scores over the past five years.

“We have more students taking the test,” Rosswog said. “I'm excited.”

In 2015, the high school had 143 AP students, 119 of whom scored a 3 or greater on an AP test.

In 2019, 216 students took an AP test and 168 scored a three or above.

Target areas are being understood by classroom diagnostic testing, a set of online assessments. Rosswog said high school teachers use classroom diagnostic testing twice a year.

“That really does help drive their instruction,” Rosswog said. “That gives them real-time data.”

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support

School staff also uses the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support to intervene for students scoring less than 60 percent on standardized tests in math and ELA.

All students are part of MTSS. Tier 1 reflects a comprehensive understanding of core instruction, for which most students classify. Tier 2 students need enrichment in some areas of learning. Tier 3 students are those who may need assistance from special education and support teachers. Students can move in and out of tiers in the MTSS model.

Centennial School teachers are using MTSS time on a regular basis. Students scoring below 60 percent on standardized tests are given the opportunity for extra instruction.

The recommended MTSS use for Tier 3 students is five meetings a week with support teachers. Lape said elementary students at Mars only have three opportunities a week.

“We don't have the staff nor the time,” Lape said.

Lape said the elementary school is looking to provide better test-taking skills.

“Filling in a dot is a big thing,” Lape said. “And they're more focused on that than finding the right math answer.”

The district's overall goal is to move below-proficient students to proficient, and proficient students to advanced.

“If we dig into it at teacher meetings, that's the conversation that's happening,” Eckert said. “Do we have a gap in our curriculum?”

Rosswog said the high school's plan of action includes professional development for staff.

Board member Dayle Ferguson said she is excited to see overlap between student needs and advancement opportunities for teachers. Teachers have some access to training that helps them to understand how to better assist below-proficient students.

“We're helping the kids,” Ferguson said. “But we're also helping the teachers.”

Samantha Beal

Samantha Beal