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Published October 13 2011

Hawley eighth-graders buck statewide math slide

HAWLEY, Minn. - When a parent asked Scott Mies midway through last year how he thought his eighth-graders would fare on the state’s revamped math test, he kept giving the same answer: “I have no idea.”

The test was harder. The format was new both to Mies, a Hawley math teacher for 13 years, and his students. When he saw the first practice problems around Christmas, he tore up his second-semester lessons because he knew they wouldn’t suffice and started from scratch.

“I was very nervous,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

In most Minnesota classrooms, his fears would have been prescient: Scores on the new test plummeted across the board. Instead, Hawley eighth-graders went the other direction, improving dramatically over their counterparts in 2010 and scoring in the top 10 among eighth-grade classes statewide.

In a state where eighth-grade math proficiency fell from 58 percent to 53 percent this year – and in Clay County, where math scores fell among 27 of the 30 classes of public school students who took the new, harder test, the MCA-III – Mies’ students were a rare bright spot. And at a school striving to get back on the right side of the Adequate Yearly Progress ledger under the No Child Left Behind Act, the high scores were a pleasant surprise.

“I was very pleased to see the results, of course,” Mies said. “We really focused on the curriculum and made sure we were doing the right things to cover the standard.”

Eighty eighth-graders at the school took the test last year. Exactly 80 percent of them passed – a mark hit by just seven of about 400 eighth-grade classes who took the test.

It was a marked improvement from the year before, when 64 percent of Hawley eighth-graders passed. Hawley High School Principal Mike Martin said the school got there by tinkering with the curriculum, targeting struggling students, and investing students in the test results.

“We’re a school that didn’t make AYP two years ago,” he said. “We implemented a really rigorous plan to increase our scores.”

Teachers took tricky material and spread it into the curriculum throughout the year. Instead of pulling students out of other classes to take the test in one long block, the school had them take it over a few days during their regularly scheduled math periods. Mies spent a week in the computer lab with his class doing practice tests to get them comfortable with the new electronic format.

“I get the feeling that a lot of kids, when it comes to a computer test, go through and look at the answers and try to figure out the best one,” he said. To combat that, he stressed the importance of showing their work on paper, just as they’d do on any other test.

But the biggest changes didn’t come until midway through the year, when Mies first laid eyes on a sample of the MCA-III and realized he needed to make some adjustments.

“I thought I knew coming in last year what I needed to cover,” he said. “I wasn’t fully aware of the difficulty of the test until I saw that first practice test.”

Most of his curriculum went out the window, replaced by heavy doses of algebra – a new wrinkle for most eighth-graders – and a new textbook.

He got a helping hand from Anita Heier, another Hawley math teacher who teaches the accelerated eighth-grade class. Algebra was already part of that curriculum, and Heier said having a big group of students in the advanced class – 35 last year – helped boost scores.

She praised Mies for getting students to grasp the new material a year early.

“To teach eighth-graders algebra is a challenge in its own right,” Heier said. “It’s teaching them basically freshman-level math at the eighth-grade level.”

To get seventh- and eighth-grade students invested in their MCA performance, Hawley factors the results into final grades. For Mies, the test replaces a final exam and counts for 10 percent of students’ grades.

He credited students for rising to the challenge.

“It may have been the importance we placed on taking the test seriously and our preparation, but during the tests, the students worked diligently on the test and took it seriously themselves,” he said.

The school has now met federal benchmarks in math two years in a row.

But Mies isn’t getting too comfortable with his methods. In fact, he revamped his entire curriculum again this year to implement a new model where students watch lessons at home and work through the problems in class.

“Now I have this great MCA score, and I’ve totally changed how I’m teaching, so I’m kind of nervous,” he said. “

But he also said he doesn’t particularly want to be judged by standardized test scores, good or bad.

“Test scores should never be the be-all, end-all,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a great representation of how good a teacher is.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502