First day

Bartels Middle School science and history teacher Kaitlyn Maratik instructs incoming sixth-graders where to on the first day of school in the Portage Community School District in September.

Noah Vernau / Daily Register

Students in the Portage Community School District will soon see new strategies employed to prepare them for state testing.

Administrators at Monday’s school board meeting laid out their “tactical plan” for improving student achievement, part of the district’s effort to achieve a report-card score of “exceeds expectations” within three years. The district met expectations this year, and failed to meet expectations last year.

“A number of kids will say, how does this impact my grade?” Curriculum Director Peter Hibner said of the state’s Forward Exam. “Once they know that it doesn’t, some of them honestly are drawing Christmas trees.”

Test motivation and providing incentives for students in state testing will be a key focus for all grade levels, Hibner said. That’s particularly important at the elementary and middle school levels. “The high school figured this out a long time ago,” Hibner added, noting that if high school students show improvement or grade out as proficient in certain subject areas, like math, they don’t need to take that particular final.

“That’s a big deal,” Hibner said, “when a kid can get waived out of (taking finals) in four or five subject areas.”

Hibner and Portage High School Principal Robin Kvalo agreed that ACT testing is practically automatic in terms of motivating the students — if they score well, their post-secondary options grow — but the school is still searching for ways to improve ACT test results, not excluding meals.

“High school students tend to be running into the building at the last minute on testing day,” Kvalo said. Last year the high school staff served breakfast to the test-takers, but not all of the students arrived on time or took advantage of it. The high school will now require test-takers to “check in” for testing prior to eating breakfast and will also provide them with healthy snacks throughout the day – important steps since the testing window is from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., with few breaks, Kvalo said.

Going forward, every department in the high school will be involved in ACT preparation, Kvalo added, and the school will also seek outside help for improving ACT scores, with a company still to be determined. Hibner said the school district also plans to adjust curriculum scheduling in high school so teachers there might use the week prior to state testing as a “test-prep week.” Such weeks will utilize online test tutorials provided by the state.

Improving student attendance is still the big piece for elementary schools to consider when it comes to student achievement, said Nikki Schoenborn, principal at Rusch and Lewiston elementary schools. Elementary schools have this year been reviewing attendance on a regular basis, involving parents and students “to set goals, remove barriers, and be ready for bad weather.”

Those efforts include providing taxi-cab vouchers for when it’s too cold for certain students to walk to school, Schoenborn said.

Elementary schools will work to build “test-taking stamina” courtesy of longer, more rigorous online assessments. Such practices will focus on the essential skills — and it speaks to the difficulty of the state testing, administrators said.

“What they have to answer at certain grade levels (in state testing) is pretty amazing,” said Hibner. Many people, if reviewing the tests, would likely assume that the third-grade testing questions were intended for sixth-graders, Hibner added. Bartels Middle School Principal Tim Reuth said that also applies for his students.

Eighth-grade math testing is particularly rigorous, Reuth said, one area where “we need to make sure they’re seeing this (kind of questioning) early on.”

“It’s not fair to expect them to perform well on something they haven’t seen before,” and the middle school will work to make sure they do, he said. The middle school will also iron out its testing schedule.

“We want them all testing at the same time, or at least for it to be a very quiet building,” Reuth said.

District Administrator Charles Poches said the administrators will again make presentations to the school board regarding these tactical measures in February and April – April being the month they expect to formally implement the “tactical plan” for the 2018-19 school year.

“We’ll leave no stone unturned,” he said.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter