Making the grade takes many forms
Whether students know it or not, classroom activities they think are fun may be standardized test preparations in disguise.
With successful showings on official 2004 state assessment building report cards and Standard of Excellence designations, De Soto schools have begun implementing the next year's plan to ensure they keep improving. Strategies filter down from data-driven administrative plans to hands-on classroom activities that meld with things students are learning anyway.
Teachers have been one of the most important hand-off points in that process, said Superintendent Sharon Zoellner.
District- and building-level learning coaches work to make sure regular curriculum aligns with tested material but isn't consumed by it. Teachers are then charged with presenting it to students.
"The work that we do on a daily basis should help students perform well on these assessments," Zoellner said. "But we are not a district that's merely teaching material to pass a test."
The Kansas State Department of Education released building report cards Oct. 12. In accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind act, De Soto schools achieved adequate yearly progress, or AYP, by having the required percentage of students show proficiency in reading, math and writing.
Each year, that percentage becomes a little higher. No Child Left Behind's goal is to have 100 percent of students score at proficient or above by 2014.
Like other schools, Lexington Trails Middle School has a strategic plan for school improvement -- that's the administrative part.
Containing almost 20 pages of charts, goals, timelines and multi-point strategies for improvement in various academic areas, the plan is translated to students through teachers.
One example of that translation played out in a recent meeting of Jamie Voorhies' sixth-grade communication arts class.
Voorhies gave the students a subject -- Egypt, in this case -- and told them to list all related words they could think of in two minutes.
Students hurriedly scrawled out terms like sand, mummies, the Nile, cuneiform and even Nefertiti, an Egyptian queen from the 14th century B.C.
Things got trickier when students worked in groups to categorize their words and make a poster showing their lists.
In a foiled attempt to take the easy way out, student Michael Hardy presented an idea for the least-challenging category heading.
"Dude, guys, let's just put 'Egypt,'" he said.
"No, you can't do that," other group members replied, instead shifting the focus to whether mummies could go under 'people' with pharaohs and King Tut.
Voorhies said the activity exercised vocabulary usage, employing language to describe, and relationships of words.
"They do a lot of that on standardized tests," Voorhies said.
Voorhies' students didn't know they were practicing a skill that would help them succeed at state assessments, but they don't need to. As Zoellner said, they just need to learn.
Another student learning initiative in De Soto schools has been technology.
Laptop computers and a district-wide remote-computing network are being integrated into all buildings, but two already have laptops for every student.
Zoellner said improved performance from using laptops at those schools, Lexington Trails and Riverview Elementary School, was not yet supported by data, although Riverview this year achieved the Standard of Excellence in all three test areas -- writing, reading and math.
"You have your gut feeling, your anecdotal feeling," Zoellner said. "We don't have data analysis at this point to say the students with laptops did better than the students without laptops."
Zoellner said student learning was under constant review, especially since the passage of No Child Left Behind.
"We are taking a much closer look at the data that we have available on a regular basis, analyzing what particular area either our students didn't do well in or weren't exposed to," she said.
Schools face various teaching challenges in continuing to achieve AYP, most stemming from students' academic diversity.
Some students are developmentally challenged, some face a language barrier, and some have less help from home than others, to name a few.
What that breaks down to is that time -- having all students in a grade exactly on par -- is the biggest challenge, Zoellner said