The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, are a series of tests that the state uses to see how well schools are teaching the state academic standards and grade-level benchmarks for the standards.
During the 2015-16 school year, Forest Lake Area High School’s MCA scores in mathematics and science saw a massive positive change when compared to current state averages and also previous years.
“We have engaged in a critical shift in the way we are teaching that results in much deeper learning,” Principal Steve Massey said. “We are creating thinkers as opposed to consumers of content.”
Forest Lake’s grade 11 math proficiency scores rose 6 percentage points from 55 in 2014-15 to 61 in 2015-16. That score is 14 percentage points above the 2015-16 state average of 47. Forest Lake sophomores scored 68 percent proficient this year in reading as opposed to 64 in 2014-15. They also bested the 2015-16 state average of 57 by 11 percentage points. By far the largest jump in high school numbers came from the science department. Forest Lake High School students surpassed their own 2014-15 proficiency score of 67 percent with a 2015-16 score of 79. The current state average is 56 percent.
“Much of the credit here can be given to Dr. Massey and the teaching staff,” Director of Teaching and Learning Diane Giorgi said. “The work that they have been doing for the last several years focusing on standards has been key to their success.”
The teaching staff has taken the state standards, looked closely at how they break down and what skills are needed to be able to have the students achieve those standards, and zeroed in on those standards during their teaching.
“They have changed to this model of ‘If you don’t achieve it the first time, that just means you haven’t achieved it yet and we’re going to keep working on it,’” Giorgi said. “So, those teachers have taken this new thought around that if you take an assessment and you show that you didn’t achieve it, you take another look at learning it and you have another opportunity to achieve it. It is never one and done.”
A standards focus has been a growing trend among many schools nationwide, but Forest Lake adopted the practice well before it was standard.
“Our teaching staff has identified certain skills or concepts that kids have to have before they move on,” said Lloyd Komatsu, testing and assessment coordinator. “Unless you get those have-to-have points, you don’t move on in the learning.”
The shift in how students learn in Forest Lake began with a small group of biology teachers led by Bruce Leventhal and including Kelli Frericks, Amber Eichten and Corrine Braton.
“This small group of teachers took it upon themselves to say, ‘OK, the research says that this kind of approach should work,’” Komatsu said. “Now that we’ve shown that it works with our students, that will help other teachers get on board.”
Leventhal, for example, teaches his material several different ways. Through labs, book work, lecture sessions and an effort called Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning that sees students working in small groups, he hopes that students will at least be able to find one style that suits them best.
“Often, I initially refuse to just give a student an answer, and instead I encourage them to search for it on their own,” he said. “For me, it is much more about the process in getting to the answer rather than being given the answer. I have always had the philosophy that if you learn the process, the content will follow because you will have a need to learn the content. When I have kids do things, it makes them want to know why.”
Although the effort to focus on standards and not move forward with new material until those standards were properly learned began in the science department, word quickly spread to other departments. Mathematics was one of the first to get on board.
“Science started the standards-based teaching method, and we recognized that it worked, but we had not fine-tuned it,” math teacher Jenny Marshall said. “So, we chatted with Bruce and had a conversation about how we get to what students need to know.”
Similar to Leventhal’s many methods idea, reteaching a student who has shown signs of struggling with a core concept includes many different approaches.
“A lot of the work we do with reteaching is one-on-one, and that gives us a better sense of where the student has gone wrong and how best to address a remedy,” Marshall explained. “We also employ the use of graphing calculators or videos to teach the concepts, as some students will respond better to that technology.”
The jump in MCA scores has prompted all departments to begin considering the teaching the standards method of classroom instruction. An increase in scores is expected to be forthcoming.
“We may not see significant growth next year because this is a building year for a lot of different departments that are new to this method, but next year they will truly try and implement that,” Giorgi said. “It is kind of a work in progress. Even with biology, it took a couple years to hone in on what made the most sense and where adjustments were needed. I would expect within two to three years we may see similar results in other areas.”
Although such a significant improvement in test scores is a win for the district, Massey stressed that his teachers are simply looking for the best ways to prepare students for the future.
“We are succeeding because we have a focused instruction around standards; a really tight teacher collaboration model that focuses on what we teach, how we teach, and how kids are doing; a high quality of instruction; and focused assessments in the classroom that are very diverse,” he said. “The test result will take care of itself if we do the right thing.”